This is truly off theme for this blog — but reading Ta-Nehisi Coates yesterday I came across this post on his (and my) most remembered Martin Luther King speech. The post resonated later in the evening as, I listened to Tavis Smiley’s show on NPR and heard one his guests argue that Obama’s nomination acceptance on the anniversary of the “I have a dream” speech did not sufficiently emphasize the Blackness of the Civil Rights struggle and of King’s message.
Smiley and several of his other guests disagreed, but the comment made me go back and listen again — second time in a day — to the clip Ta-Nehisi posted, the key passage in the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech delivered the day before he was assassinated.
Listening and watching again — especially with the foreknowledge that MLK seemed to have of what was coming so unbelievably soon — crystallized why I thought Obama got his note just right in his acceptance speech. He spoke of King not by name, remember, but as the Preacher from Georgia.
The Preacher — someone who teaches, persuades, one whose success is judged by what his or her words inspire their listeners to do. The rhetorical idea was obvious, and I think right: Obama was saying that King’s words belong not just to one man, time, and struggle, but form a teaching that transcends those particulars.
And in that context, the Mountaintop speech is as important, maybe more so, than the visionary and uplifting Dream.
Remember, King really was a preacher, steeped in Bible. He knew exactly what he wanted to do with the image of the mountaintop. His predecessor there was Moses — not like Jesus a messiah, divine and already at least in one attribute an inhabitant of the world to come, but a prophet, a teacher, a mortal man with great flaws to accompany his strengths, who had done his best by his stubborn and stiffnecked people.
Moses had led that people for a long time; at the threshold of success, of labor’s end, he learns he will not complete the journey. Most of the book of Deuteronomy is devoted to Moses giving the last lessons he can to his people, uplift and threats, and a final admonition: “Therefore choose life.” Then he climbs to the mountain peak, looks over the land promised the Jews, and dies.
The full range of meaning and feeling in the old tale of work transcending death is what makes King’s reworking so powerful. This is what great speakers and teachers do: they endow their words not just with overt meaning, but with a layered wealth of story, more meaning, more stuff for their listeners to chew on.
Obama in a literally mundane context turned his speech on the same idea. He’s a great speaker in the same vein as King, not because he can deliver a line well, but because the speeches he writes and delivers as well as he does have both sound and meaning — a very carefully constructed web of references and connections to other stories we have told each other. The Preacher from Georgia was a great way to frame the memory of Dr. King, that is, IMHO, not because in anonymized him, making him safe for white America — King is too strong a figure to be overtaken by his epithet, and Obama knows it. Rather the trope works because it demands we pay attention to the full meaning of both King’s words and Obama’s.
In other words, what a great speech, for what it said, for what it demands of its listeners, (all 40 million of us) and what it requires we remember.
So: for your viewing pleasure: “I’ve been to the mountaintop” excerpt (the full text and video can be found at the link above); “I have a Dream” and the last section of Barack Obama’s DNC acceptance speech in which the young preacher from Georgia makes his appearance. (Full forty-five minute version here):