Three lessons we needed from Dr. King’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop”

Let’s revisit his final speech.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was radical. In his last speech, he rallied Memphis sanitation workers who were striking to gain better working conditions. King dropped many gems throughout the speech, but we want to focus on three about unity, non-violence, and economic withdrawal. To read the full text, check out this link.

1. Unity is imperative.

Firstly, King called for unity on all fronts. When he opens his speech, the first thing he does is call attention to movements in Nairobi and Johannesburg. By looking at liberation from this global lens, King was challenging the idea that what we faced in America was unique.

After all, South Africa’s Apartheid government used slavery and Jim Crow to anchor a period of injustice for the country, and its effects are longstanding. This mirrors the impact that slavery and Jim Crow has had on the U.S., and that is because white supremacy is a global construct. Looking to today, this unity is still important as Haitian migrants and Ukrainian refugees are subject to two different sets of treatment.

Source: Office of Refugee Resettlement

While the latter reaps the benefits of whiteness, Haitian migrants are being turned away at borders and having legislation that made against them. The contrasts in the treatment of these two groups are jarring, and they remind us that the fight for liberation is ongoing.

In the words of King, “We’ve gotta give ourselves to this struggle until the end.”

2. Non-violence is disobedience.

Sadly, the struggle did not begin or end with King. To this day, police violence continues to impact the Black community disproportionately. Just recently, Keenan Anderson, a teacher in Los Angeles, died as a result of being tased by police officers.

Anderson was a teacher and father, and he was also the cousin of Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors. Anderson’s death is yet another entry on a too-long list of police brutality victims. In 2020, we saw demonstrations and marches in response to this violence, but we never saw concrete changes.

Congress took knees in kente stoles and still proceeded to inflate police budgets. In the wake of this, revisiting King’s strategies are paramount to pushing the movement forward. One key strategy was non-violence as disobedience.

The first principle of his non-violence strategy is resistance. This is the part that is constantly misconstrued. When people hear “non-violence,” they interpret it as acceptance, but this was not part of King’s strategy. Instead, it was a resistance that was “aggressive spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.”

Credit: NPR.

Non-violence was a strategy of approaching the three evils King wanted to eradicate: poverty, racism, and militarism. In King’s own words, “It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.”

One of the ways he approached non-violence was through direct action.

3. We must develop unselfishness.

Part of the struggle is sacrifice. As some have pointed out in the wake of BLM scams, leaders like Dr. King died without riches, so promoting activism as a lifestyle is fundamentally flawed.

When speaking to the workers in Memphis, King focused on sacrifice a lot. He quoted scripture when he noted, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

King emphasized this scripture because centering the sanitation workers was imperative in getting them their rights. Still today, we see workers battling for basic human rights.

Source: TikTok.

A recent viral TikTok showed an Amazon worker falling into a septic tank. After showering at home, he headed back to work. This story is indicative of the ongoing struggle that Amazon workers face.

However, these workers cannot win this fight alone, which is why King said, “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” As we celebrate MLK Day, it is important to embrace his legacy in totality because he was radical too. Check out this excerpt of him speaking below:

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