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The King and the Mountain

Three of the ten 20th century martyrs above the West door at Westminster Abbey, installed 2000. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bishop Romero, Pastor Bonhoeffer.When the people stand together, their voice is mighty as thunder.

This morning (Jan 17) I heard a rebroadcast of Dr. King’s speech the day before agents of our Federal government executed him.* It was a brilliant speech, unlike any you will hear today.

In our time the good seem to have lost their voice and only demagogies speak with Yeats’ passionate intensity. The speech, in support of the striking Memphis sanitation workers, was full of parable and metaphor and rich in the tradition of the black preachers who had not only been to the Mountain but also to the best theological schools. It was emotionally and intellectually satisfying—something rare in sermons.

It was a rainy night in Memphis and often the speech was interrupted by—was it thunder or the stirring, murmuring approval of the packed Memphis Mason Temple? The recording quality is poor in parts, so some of the reactions to his words seemed to come from the heavens and his followers simultaneously.

It is hard to hear the speech and not be convinced that those who packed the church on that dark night were in the presence of a supernatural event where the past, present and future merges into an eternal state of Being.

Imagine if Christians could have a recording of Christ’s conversation with the Disciples in the Garden the night before he fell. King’s speech was that important. A year earlier, his anti-Vietnam remarks at Riverside Church had lost him the support of the mainstream press and nearly all of his supporters in the Civil Rights movement.

The speeches in Memphis and at the Riverside Church, in my mind, eclipse his far more popular “I have a dream” speech.  They are more courageous and dangerous by far in their speaking the difficult truth about Amerika.

In 1966, while working for WFLD-TV News, I covered the King campaign in Chicago and had a nearly daily (Daley?) exposure to the man. As a result of having a first-hand witness of many men of power over the years, I have developed a caustic dislike for power and all who wield it.

I learned, by some very personal traumas and observations, Lord Acton’s axiom that power invariably tends to corrupt. King is one of the few men I have ever witnessed who could wield power without ego and could motivate and transform people solely with love. 

The presence of compassion emanated from him with a warmth that possessed an almost perceptible physical force. These were not days of love in light in Chicago.Black and white racism was rampant. Elijah Mohammad, the Blackstone Rangers, Stokely and the Panthers were on one side of him and Lincoln Rockwell (whose Nazi Party Headquarters was in Chicago) and Mayor Daley were on the other. In the end, King’s strategy of non-violence was no match for Daley’s institutional violence. He famously said once that he would rather deal with the dogs and fire hoses of a Bull Connor than a Mayor Daley. At least Bull Connor’s racism was honest.

Whenever I think back on my experience of Dr. King and those bad old days, an image comes to mind. Once, when I was shooting a fishing documentary off the coast of Venezuela, I remember leaving the dock in one of those small fishing boats Hemmingway made so famous.

As we headed out to sea, I looked back at the shore and the people and buildings receding into the background. Looming over all were the mountains that rise close to the shore in that part of South America. As we picked up speed and the land-bound objects became small and indistinct, the mountains seemed undiminished.  Indeed they seemed to actually have grown in size. I tell you this observation by way of analogy to my impressions and memories of Dr. King. 

The farther my images and impressions of those turbulent days recede in my memory, the more his stature and clarity increases. Individual events and the petty players ebb quickly into forgetfulness. Only King remains, tall, brightly lit and triumphant. This is my idea of greatness.


*The Execution of Martin Luther King by Dr. William Pepper at

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