"I've been to the mountain top" - Analysis of Martin Luther King's last speech with regard to his idea of the American Dream


  • 1. Introduction

  • 2. Short Biography of Martin Luther King

  • 3. "I've been to the mountaintop" - The last speech of Martin Luther King
    • 3.1 What does the speech deal with and how does he structure it?
    • 3.2 How does he convince the audience?

  • 4. Martin Luther King's idea of the American Dream

  • 5. Conclusion

1.Introduction

The headline of this work is: "I've been to the mountaintop"- Analysis of Martin Luther King's last speech with regard to his idea of the American Dream.

We've worked on the term "American Dream" at school, but in my opinion there was not enough time to deal with it, that's the reason I chose the topic once again. I am generally interested in the American history especially regarding to the racial segregation of black people, because I don't understand the historical facts of that white people were animated to discriminate Blacks. It's a constant lasting conflict which has never changed at all and illustrated one side of the image of the USA. Otherwise I like the idea of the American Dream on the basis of the different facets of it. There are on the one hand those kinds of people who want to live in the USA, just because they love the states and their advantages but on the other hand there are even those people who really do believe that America is something like a paradise in which every dream has the chance to become reality. For me America and the USA are a result of many huge events that happened over the time. Dr. Martin Luther King connected both named issues in his last speech, so in this work I will occupy myself with that stuff, which he delivered on the 3rd April in 1968. First I will give a short reflection of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King and even of his membership in the civil right movements. In the following I will repeat the content of the speech, also with regard of the structure. In addition to that I will explain the ways King convinces the listeners and the effects these different ways got. This is a view of the stylistic devices, which are always used in texts like this to touch the audience and to have an influence of them. After that I will describe Martin Luther King's idea of the American Dream and bring it in connection with his speech. Here it is important to underline the points that marked his idea of this special dream that had and still have millions of people. At least I'll make a conclusion out of my recognitions I got while I analyzed the speech.

The important point in this work is it to learn something about the person, Martin Luther King himself and to get knowledge about his ideas and intentions he had while he was alive. He reached a lot and this he showed whenever he delivered a speech.

2. Short Biography of Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King was born on the January, 15, 1929 in Atlanta/Georgia (USA). In the year 1948 he left college with his exam in sociology. A few years later, 1953, he married Coretta Scott and began to work as a preacher (1954). In 1955 he got the doctors degree in theology. In 1957, SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) was founded. King was voted for president of this organization. Some other constellations were against this peaceful way of fighting but in the end this way stayed unbroken.

Martin Luther King presented his idea of an equal society. He wanted tolerance and civil rights especially for black people because even there was no longer slavery, there were still racial segregation in the year 1963. The reason for this continuous problem was the ex-president of the USA, Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865). Martin Luther King became a part in the civil right movements. It happened when a black man was thrown out of a bus just because he sat down on a seat which was only reserved for white people. As a result of this, King began to demonstrate against racial segregation in public transportation by starting a bus boycott. After some time the federal court made the law no longer valid.

On August, 28, 1963 he organized the "March of Washington' which had gigantic extents and a high value up to now. More than 200 000 black and white people assembled to this huge event to have a rally in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln. That is the day of the most famous speech of Martin Luther King, which is called "I have a dream'. King was chosen as "the man of the year' by the time magazine in 1964. In the same year, he got the Nobel peace prize. On April, 4, 1968 he was killed in Memphis/Tennessee. Since 1986, every 3rd Monday in January a day to remember Martin Luther King is celebrated in USA. He was a special person who reached a lot of changes that are still important in our present.

While he climbed the mountain (a symbol for his career and whole lifetime as well) he lived the American dream until that point he reached the top. But what did his dream include and what did really come true? The definition "American Dream" means a dream of a land in which everyone has the possibility "to improve his/her life according to his/her ability and achievements" - the way of climbing the ladder of success. Another synonym for it is "the promised land", because in the eyes of the people it is something perfect which is given by god. This dream even includes the idea of equality, "regardless of their socio-economic and ethnic background". For many Americans "it is the dream of decent and affordable housing. It is the dream of racial equality and justice for all". For others "it has to do with individual freedom and the opportunity to make a better life for you". In American history the dream was defined as the frontier and the west which was also seen as the "moving borderline between civilization and wilderness".

If someone is now and then speaking about this special idea of equality, there is even the image of Martin Luther King in mind. The day before he was murdered, he delivered his last speech "I've been to the mountaintop", in which he said a lot of things that could have been decisive for his homicide. There were many different responsibilities of the American Dream and although Dr. King shared a lot of them with the most of people, he also had his own different one.

3."I've been to the mountaintop" - The last speech of Martin Luther King

3.1 What does the speech deal with and how does he structure it?
The speech "I've been to the mountaintop" was delivered by Martin Luther King, on the 3rd of April 1968, in the "Church of God in Christ Headquarters' in Memphis/Tennessee to support the striking sanitation workers in Memphis. It deals with Martin Luther King, who says that he has seen the "Promised Land" (cf. ll.251-252).

At the beginning of the speech he introduces the listeners by saying thank you and appreciating his best friend, Ralph Abernathy (preacher and member of the civil right movements, like king), who preached in the same church the time before King came to speak up. He also adds that he is glad to see everyone who is present. This part is also seen as the introduction. In the following second part he explains that something has changed. He imagines that god would ask where he'd like to go when he could get the chance to move into another age. He lists every place he would go by using this possibility but in the end he declares that he only wants to live on that point of time he already lives. After that he reflects why it sounds strange that he decides to stay in this momentary situation, he tells of mess, sickness and confusion but that there is hope on the other side as well. It's a kind of a public internal monologue. He tells a story in which he poses an indirect question and gives in the next step the answer to this question. He points out that not everything has stayed the same because of new abilities to cry and to fight for Liberty. King carries on point by point why he is happy to live in this period. He says that now there is the force to fight against the same problems men had before. But that the last generations were unable to grapple because of the lacking of this mental power. Furthermore he argues that it is no longer a decision between being violent or not, but that it has to do with existing. The contrast to now, he emphasizes, is the chance of staying together, building a unity and being not a part of any negative protests. He tells of the determination to be someone and even the issues, which include injustice.

In view of this, he mentions the sanitation workers who were not treated fair by Memphis. It treated them bad and gave them not the conditions they had to deserve really. King remembers a protest and in appendix therefore he makes the audience clear once again, that they are allowed to have an opinion and to protest for their rights. In addition, he quotes and commends preachers who also fight for the rights of people and who used their own voice to talk. With a view of their sermons, he reflects the bad conditions of children in America and the poverty of his listeners, in contrast to the white and also richer society. On this point he considers himself as well. In his opinion the black institutions shall be stronger. In the last part of the speech, he concludes his whole intention and once again he calls everyone to be there when the next march starts. He wants every presented person to think about what would happen when they would stop to help the sanitation workers. He intensively explains why he wants them to support these workers. In consideration he clarifies that they got the opportunity to make America a better nation and in view of this he thanks god, having got the possibility to be there. He actually knows that it could be different as he remembers a story which happened a few years ago, when a woman stabbed him while he was autographing the edition of his first book in New York. After this happening a young girl wrote a letter to him in which she told him that she is pretty happy that he did not die. In the end of the speech Martin Luther King lists all the years he would not be a part of, in case he had die. But he underlines again that he is still happy to live in this period and to be there, where he does not fear anything- he does not mind, because he has "seen the glory of the coming of lord" (cf. l.365). The introduction (cf. ll.1-7) deals, as already said, with short few introductory sentences in which Martin Luther King greets the audience. The second part (cf. ll.8-83) is Kings' repetition of many events that happened from the origin of time until the 1960s, telling as a story in which he includes himself. The following paragraphs (cf. ll.84-101) handle about the injustice and how to solve conflicts. He gives the example of the sanitation workers who are on strike because of unfairness. After that (cf. ll.102-142) and in appendix to the main topic, the problem of the sanitation workers, he narrates a memory, which is also the necessary connection to his appeal to the listeners (cf. l.143). In the following sixth part, he names the religion side which exists of preachers who had always support movements like this (cf. l1.43-152), but that is just a help for him to bring in the next step critics to those preachers (cf. ll.153-210), because although he knows that it is nice to preach (a positive point he mentions when he talks about those men) of all the good things in life and all over the world, he is sure that there is also another side, someone has to preach of. He calls the audience again not to stop, to go on and to support the sanitation workers (cf. ll.211-244). He moves to his personal part of the speech, by telling about his imagination. He uses a psalm of the bible (cf. ll.245-264). Following that he consults the person presented for the third time to support the sanitation workers (cf. ll.265-276). In the part before last (cf. ll.277-340), he reflects a memory in which he had almost been killed and the reaction of a young student to this happening. He shows the audience the necessity of aid. In the end (ll.340-356) Martin Luther King states the journey he already has been trough until he returned to Memphis. He explains his wishes for the future and even though his confidence in view of it, he wants everyone to know that god is always there also in front of the white men.

In conclusion the whole speech reflects a structure which exists of different parts. Each of them got an introductory sentence and a following explicit description. The unusual quality about the text is the way King goes through the different paragraphs. It seems almost as if he'd climb the mountain until he reaches the top, in the end. This top is treating equal with the Promised Land. The climb he describes seems to be as a red threat which leads him through his points.

3.2 How does he convince the audience?
He uses the pronoun "we" while the whole speech, i.e. "We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God's world" (ll.68-70). He wants the audience to feel as if they were a part of the unity. This pronoun shows that Martin Luther King identifies himself with the audience. They should think intensively about everything that happens and what they can do to create better conditions for themselves and the other citizens. This used way also effects that everyone get the feeling Martin Luther King talks to him in a personal dialogue.

In the speech are many repetitions as well, for example "I wouldn't stop here" (ll.11, 21, 24, 27, 30, 33, 36-37). He wants to point out, that he would go deeper and deeper in the past and back again. He wouldn't stop anywhere until that point he'd reach the present, because it's that point of time he wants to live on. He uses them to show that there are so many different events passed, we sometimes forget about. Repetitions reflect the value of something and the listeners get the possibility to think about some important things twice to internalize them. In connection with these repetitions there are also anaphors, which he needs to underline what he would do when he would get the abilities to do it. By using it, the audience can follow better because of the no changing structure in this part of the speech. Especially in this speech it is a good method to show on the one hand, that "something is happening" (ll.8, 42) and on the other hand where he would go when he'd get the chance to move into another period of time.

In the following are also personifications, for example that "the nation is sick" (l.37) or that "Memphis is not being fair to them" (ll.91-92). King gives examples for the destruction over the last few years and even of the power which in fact some little parts of nation also can have. For the listeners it's much easier to imagine the extents of such a nation or such a country when they are compared with a human person. They can pretend it better.

Apart from that, there are contrasts as well; "sick white brothers" (l.343) is just one of them. These contrasts repeat the bad way black people were treated by the white people. They had to do a lot of things only because the white people want them to do but Martin Luther King still calls them "brothers" because of the equality he wanted to reach. With contrasts it is good to understand the conflict behind a point, because although you do not understand one side, perhaps you understand the other one and get an idea of the problem. In this contrast is also included an image. There are lot of images in Martin Luther King's speech to suggest the ideas of his intention, and with this intention connected points to the listeners, for example "the mountaintop" (l.346), "Gods children" (l.75), etc. Images are necessary when a speaker wants the audience to keep the told things in mind. This figurative language is useful when there is something that should have an influence of the people. Images are easy to understand and to remember anyway. In so far as speaker and audience think and believe in a familiar way.

Another stylistic device is the rhetorical questions. One question Martin Luther King poses is "Did you ever think about that?"(l.174). King asks these questions to give the listeners the chance to question the content as well to find perhaps a solution for the actually problem. Although he gives the answer in the following it might seems at first as if he expects this answer from the audience. It's even a way of showing once again the main content of the speech or generally in texts.

By regarding the speech, it is obvious to see that the speaker often uses exclamations i.e. "We need all of you", (l.143) to fill his words with emotions and to mark the, in his opinion, most important points. The listeners get many impressions of these points and so it is easier for them to remind these.

Martin Luther King often uses symbols to bring some images in the minds of the listeners. For the audience it is understandable and easy to imagine these symbols as well. It is necessary to mention the comparisons, which are helpful when there is two things the speaker, in this case King wants to bring in connection with each other, and "we were stacked in there like sardines in a can" (ll.121-122). Comparisons are the most useful way to let the listeners recognize the meaning of some things because of the possibly comparability of these with the image of a scale, which makes the weight more obviously.

King includes sarcasm by using the word "Negroes" to call the black people. It is the word the white people invented to have a term for blacks. In fact, he uses it to show the power that lies behind some description like this. All in all is to say that speeches like this are full of stylistic devices and that these devices are a functional and necessary way, when a speaker wants to include or to animate the audience.

4. Martin Luther King's idea of the American Dream

You can find the general definition of the American Dream in "short biography of Martin Luther King'. As I already said, was King's version of it not different at all but in some points not only restricted to the surface idea of this dream. His personal idea reaches up to now, in which it still plays a huge role in our society respectively in the society of the USA. He believed that everything is possible when everyone would just "stay together" (l.78).

His idea was for every human being to live free, without any conflicts and any prejudices just because of the ethnic background or the skin color. Standing up for the dream; "to make America a better nation" (l.275). His aim was to bring "the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence (...)" (ll.311-312), as he said in the speech. This "better nation" should include a unity which lives together without racial segregation. He always spoke of "brothers and sisters" (cf. "I have a dream', King, 1963), and that black and white people should live together in "neighborhood" (cf. "I have a dream', King; 1963) which should be a symbol for the equality of everyone and the love between each other even though they'd live door next door.

In the speech "I've been to the mountaintop" Martin Luther King thinks about all the events he was a part of in the past. He remembers all the good men he met while he was fighting against injustice as well as he remembers his enemies. But he also says that he is happy to live in this period although there were a lot of challenges. He compares this period with the periods before and he realizes how much has changed in a positive way. He knew that he was an important part of these changes, when he delivered the speech the day before he was killed.

When he preached, he often fell back upon the points of Liberty and Independence. Even as in this speech, when he says: "But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for your right", (ll.137-140). And these imaginations are also pieces of the American Dream, especially in Martin Luther King's conception of the American Dream. He was sure that nothing "couldn't stop" strong movements as these ones he was a part of because they were "going on". King always supported the black people who didn't get what they deserve, he wanted changes and he never gave up hope. Although there were men that crossed his walk, he went on and preached for the civil rights of everyone. King wanted to see the children together as friends, not to watch them growing up and making the same mistakes as the people the periods before only because they did not learn it the right way. He was sure that it had something to do with justice to do not judge about someone just of a mark he couldn't decide about. Martin Luther King was sure one day the moment will come in which nobody would be allowed to make differences. His beliefs came out of the certainty that god has created all men equal and this was the even reason for him to say that nobody has the right to discriminate anyone. King was sure to own this knowledge and with it he convinced his audience. He got his followers during the whole time and they were his power and help to go on until the end. In fact is to say that his wish of a better nation, his own idea of the American dream wasn't that far apart anymore when he delivered this speech. In his words: "And so 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 lord."(ll.353-356), on that point of time he was sure enough to say, that the Promised Land exists and that he had been there.

In one single point, every followers of the American Dream do agree: the aim is it to be at least in a kind of heaven.

5.Conclusion

When I first read the speech I was amazed of the different expressions it gives. It is full of different stories, whether stories Martin Luther King has experienced or stories that happened around him and of which he is in this case only the narrator. The speech reflects a lot of periods which reach from the philosophes Plato and Aristotle over the presidency of Abraham Lincoln until the 1960s years. In this speech he tells a lot about common bond and about the power of unities.

As I analyzed Martin Luther King's idea of the American Dream I noticed that there are many parallels to the ideas and wishes every one of us got for his/her own life and future but also the other way round. It is strange to see how many huge events had an influence of this life I am living in.Although there is still segregation from white people against blacks or sometimes from black people against Whites, so much does not stay the same. White people are no longer allowed to treat the blacks in such a bad way they did a few years before, they do no longer have the right to sit on other seats in busses than black people just because they are white and at least it's not okay to use the term "Negroes". There are differences in official and private segregation if one compares countries of former times and today.

Martin Luther King and the other members of the Civil Right Movements had the force to arrange that it is not okay, to make a difference between the people. As Abernathy, King and all the other preachers said that everyone is a child of god and because of that we are equal, no matter what our nationality is and from which country we come or where we want to go. No matter which skin color we got, we are equal and nobody of us should have the ability to hurt somebody, because of characteristics we didn't have an influence in. In my opinion Martin Luther King was one of these personalities that will be a part of every following period because of the things he had achieved. He was a huge preacher and a man who didn't appreciate the violent way of fighting. He inspired masses of people and by reading or listening to his speeches he still does. From my point of view he is a role-model. He was a leader in the fight of the rights for black people. And in the end he had to die for his dream. But I have to add that he was just one man, and we all know that changes need more than one person to be reached. So we have to work on when we get in situations with racism and we have to use our right to speak up when we notice that something is going wrong. In fact we got persons that have created a basic which we have to build up, until that point everyone understands what problems and conflicts like these got in consequence. Because sometimes it is "just" a term for a different looking person which has the power to be the origin of a war and we are responsible to prevent it.
Quellennachweis auf Anfrage: info@abi-deutsch.de