‘I’ve been to the Mountaintop’ Analysis: Social Change, and the Promised Land

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Updated: Sep 06, 2023
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Historical Context and the Changing Dynamics

In 1963, the ‘March on Washington’ saw over 250,000 protestors gather in front of the Lincoln Memorial in order to draw attention to the plight faced by African Americans within a social discourse that sought to oppress them. It was here that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his historic I Have a Dream Speech. This speech is distinctly different from King’s last speech, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop. Whilst I Have a Dream focused on addressing discrimination, King received criticism of his nonviolent approach by the Black Power movement and, as a response to this, expanded his scope of issues to include economic—not just racial—discrimination and inequality.

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“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”: The Setting and Significance

On April 3rd1964, King spoke at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee; I’ve Been to the Mountaintop was performed to an overflowing audience during the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. The following day, April 4th1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. I’ve Been to the Mountaintop came about as members of the Memphis community were in opposition to the unjust mistreatment of Black sanitation workers following the death of two men whilst they were working. When the government official’s response failed to acknowledge the city’s neglect and discrimination of its Black workers, 1300 men went on strike. King believed he could use the struggle in Memphis to expose the need for economic and social equality.

Emotive Language and Broader Audience

His speech evokes an emotional response as he directly addresses the concerns of people who felt largely marginalized and dismissed by the authorities governing them. King employs emotive language and powerful phrases such as “the nation is sick” and “the whole world is doomed” as a means to not only rally his audience but also to widen the scope of his addresses to all people rather than just the Black people in Memphis. This is further proved when King recalls a story after his near-fatal stabbing when he received a letter from a young white girl. King talks about letters he had received wishing him recovery from important figures such as the President and Vice-President and says he cannot remember what was said in these letters, but that a letter from this girl who says, “I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.’ (King) was the most memorable. Use of this key episode stresses his desire to target an audience much wider than those just in Tennessee: by using this example of a schoolgirl from New York, King switches the rhetoric to be inclusive of the nation as a whole.

Religious Undertones and the Push for Unity

King, an activist and a Baptist minister, has become a well-known figure in the Black Civil Rights movement. He is distinguished for his powerful, religiously motivated, and emotionally based speeches that attracted large crowds. In I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, King seeks to restore nonviolent protest back to Memphis following a march that had collapsed into violence. The tone of the speech in its roots is prophetic. King imagines himself on a Mountaintop looking ahead to the “Promised Land” and references the book of Deuteronomy. The biblical story he refers to very much mirrors his own life story, with King paralleling Moses and the Israelites as his followers. Having been told by God that he will not reach the Promised Land with his people, Moses climbs Mount Nebo to look over at the land. When Moses dies soon after, it is Joshua, his assistant and successor, who leads the people to the Promised Land. It would be illogical to assume that King was making the comparison lightly.

He knew he was a threat to the social order and even states, “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!”  This reference to “we” is common in Kings’ speeches that call for unity amongst all Black People. King was of the opinion that the civil rights movement would not see any progress if its members didn’t seek to help each other. In I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, he talks about the parable of the Good Samaritan. King uses the story to illustrate how he believed Blacks should behave selflessly towards each other. This is in reference to previous attempts by the sanitation workers to strike that had failed predominantly because they were not supported by influential parties in Memphis, such as the religious community and middle-class, who couldn’t relate to the struggles of the poor working-class men. Speaking of the striking sanitation workers, King begged his audience not to question, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ but to instead ask, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’

In her essay titled The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, AudreLorde also emphasizes the importance of unity and interdependency despite differences to implement proper change. She writes, “Without community, there is no liberation… But community must not mean a shedding of our differences.” For Lorde, it was of utmost importance to build communities to oppose change, but these communities cannot be exclusive, and real change will only occur when we seek to acknowledge differences and make them strengths. A poignant part of Dr. King’s speech is his desire to “Make America a better nation” and its similarities with the infamous slogan of “Make America Great Again.” I don’t think that it would be unreasonable to assume that if Martin Luther King Jr. were still with us today, he would still be fighting the same cause. This Promised Land that King speaks about is still a symbol of hope for a nation that we still have yet to discover.


  1. King, M. L. Jr. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” 

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'I've Been to the Mountaintop' Analysis: Social Change, and the Promised Land. (2023, Sep 06). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/ive-been-to-the-mountaintop-analysis-social-change-and-the-promised-land/