One of the most poignant historical images in the life of black America depicted a group of black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., in February 1968, who were striking for improved and safer working conditions. These men carried signs saying “I Am A Man” as they looked both defiant and desperate at the same time. They had been beaten, tear-gassed and demeaned by national guardsmen during their nonviolent demonstrations. The strike started after two Memphis garbage workers were crushed by a malfunctioning truck.
In the midst of this situation came the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the strike had struck at the heart of the civil-rights movement. On April 3rd Dr. King was persuaded to speak at Mason Temple Church Of God In Christ in support of the striking workers. It was in this setting that King gave his famous mountaintop speech.
Dr. King mesmerized the crowd as he spoke about his own mortality: “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 next evening, as he was getting ready for dinner, King was shot dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
Forty years after Dr. King’s death, we witnessed history — something special, which will stay with us forever – a black man elected President of the United States of America. The moment President Elect Barack Obama, his wife and children appeared on stage at Grant Park in Chicago in front of 240,000 enthusiastic supporters was a snapshot in history to be remembered. It was a moment worthy of painting so we could hang it on our walls for posterity. Even outgoing President George W. Bush stopped to pay tribute to the election of a black successor four decades after the civil rights activists marched so that African-Americans could vote in such elections. “All Americans can be proud of the history that was made,” he said. “Many of our citizens thought they would never live to see that day.”
Using words similar to those used by Dr. King during his final speech, Obama told us: “The road ahead will be long, our climb will be steep,” he told a vast crowd in Chicago as he invoked a new spirit of patriotism. “We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America: I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we as a people will get there.”
The greatest speech Dr. King made — the “I Have a Dream” speech — was in August 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, as a crowd of 250,000 listened intently. “I have a dream,” he said, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold all these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ ” This month, at the other end of the Washington Mall, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. We have, all of us, taken a huge step closer the Promised Land.