Our trip took us to Memphis, where we visited the National Civil Rights Museum on the site of the Lorraine Motel where, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
King had come to Memphis to support the striking African-American city sanitation workers. In the last year of his life he had launched the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, addressing issues of economic inequality in addition to his work on racial inequality. The sanitation workers were on strike to demand fair treatment and better pay.
The night before his assassination, he addressed a crowd at a rally with what has become known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, a powerful visionary speech that was also eerily prescient. In it he makes references to death threats made against him, including a bomb threat about the plane he was taking to Memphis. He concludes, evoking the biblical imagery:
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say that threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
The night before we arrived in Memphis, we had walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, echoing the path of the Selma to Montgomery march. In 1965 civil rights activists planned to march from Selma to the State Capitol building in Montgomery to demand voting rights. This was the march of the famous photos of King and other leaders–including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel–marching arm in arm.
What I hadn’t realized until we made this trip was that this was the third attempt at a march, and that after the first two attempts a specific call was made for religious leaders and others to join in. The first attempt became known as “Bloody Sunday” because as the marchers crossed the bridge they were met by police who beat the protesters, including the leader John Lewis. (The second was a symbolic walk led by King that turned around halfway across the bridge.) The images from Bloody Sunday were widely viewed and gained a lot of sympathy for the cause.
In preparation for our trip I read March, the three-volume graphic novel by John Lewis (now a Congressman from Georgia). It is an incredible telling of his life story from childhood to his leadership in the civil rights movement. The books climax at the Selma to Montgomery march, and vividly brought to life this history. As the book evokes, when one is crossing the arched bridge, one can’t see the other side from the other. When they started out, they didn’t see the police assembled on the other side until they reached the top of the arch, the midpoint of the bridge. At the exhibit at the Memphis civil rights museum, he described it as seeing a “sea of blue”–Alabama state troopers.
I thought of this as we crossed the bridge, and it’s true, you can’t see the other side until you reach the midpoint of the arched bridge. I tried to image what that must have been like, to head off with hopes and ideals ascending the bridge only to meet an army of those who would seek to destroy those ideals.
Lewis, in a way, had also been to the mountaintop. And at the top of the bridge he saw those ostensibly charged with the public trust who would beat their fellow humans based solely on the color of their skin and their desire for justice. (The same as in Birmingham, which we also visited, where police turned dogs and fire hoses on protesters.) And after the confrontation, in which Lewis was badly hurt, it took courage and conviction to return.
And it took courage and conviction for King to continue knowing there were death threats against him. And it took courage and conviction for the movement to continue after King’s murder.
As we stand where these justice heroes stood, putting their lives on the line for justice, equality, and human dignity, it renews for us the commitment to continue this journey. The issues may change (and in some ways they have not). But the spiritual commitment is the same: to ascend to the heights, envision a better future, see the obstacles ahead, and have the courage and conviction to take the next step.