Searching for the Mountaintop

The power of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life—his clarion oratory skill, his burning prophetic demand for racial and economic justice—tremors through the consciousness of our society today. Yet the urgency of his message and radical call to action, it could be said, proved not just from the transformative clarity of his vision but in the way this vision defied the proximity of death’s shadow.

“Each morning as I brush my teeth and wash my face,” King would say, according to Andrew Young, to those around him, “I am reminded by the cross-shaped scar on my chest that each and any day could be my last day on this earth.” Thus when King ascended the podium at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3rd, 1968, alluding to his prior brush with death on the night before his assassination, death’s force seemed as removed yet as present as the Mountaintop from where King spoke; the valley of the shadow of death pressed to the landscape of the Promise Land, as immediate as 1967 in Chicago or 1955 in Montgomery.

Indeed, to look back on that night, we must inevitably recast our vision in the shadow of King’s death. Our images of King and interpretation of his words forever transposed to the realities of the world that was to come. King’s demand for justice, though, rings out truer than ever, as the events of today continue to echo those of yesterday. And if any indication demonstrates the aliveness of King’s legacy, we might see it in the ways his image is used by those in the media and our public sphere—especially considering King’s later call for labor solidarity, his critique of the war in Vietnam, and admonition of the economic dimensions of racial oppression.

At Media Burn, we have committed our work to continually inform and renew inspiration for how we look at the past and how the past looks at us; the notion that, in the words of William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In this spirit, we offer this video of a young girl reciting the final part of King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. In 1994, the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago showcased the exhibit “Let Us March On! Selected Civil Rights Photographs of Ernest C. Withers.” Chicago filmmaker Bill Stamets was there to capture video of Withers giving a tour of this retrospective exhibition, with Mamie Till present. At the end of the tour, Till introduces a young girl who performs a moving recitation of King’s last speech. Through it, we may witness (through Withers’s own “lenses”) how King’s words continue to speak through to the present and glimpse the powerful role of those who continue to bear witness to these words. Ernest Withers is known as one of the most prominent African-American photographers during the civil rights years and among the most influential image makers documenting King’s public and political engagement. Having grown up in Memphis, Withers took thousands photographs across several pivotal moments in the civil rights movement―from the Emmett Till trial in 1955 to King’s assassination. To learn more about Withers’s life and work, we invite you to check out Revolution in Black and White, a new book by By Richard Cahan and Michael Williams by City Files Press. Since Withers’s death in 2007, it has been revealed that Withers served as an FBI informant. To learn more about the ambiguities of Withers’s role in the civil rights movement, we invite you to explore the recent biography  Bluff City: The Secret Life of Ernest Withers by Preston Lauterbach.

Watch the full video of Ernest Wither’s exhibition footage below:



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