Perspectives

I’ve Been to the Hilltop: Why #BlackAtSMU May Be an Answer to Dr.King’s 1966 Speech at SMU

Almost 50 years ago on April 3, 1968, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his final sermon entitled “I Have Been To The Mountaintop.” Of all of Dr. King’s sermons and speeches, “I Have Been To The Mountaintop” resonates most profoundly as I continue to learn of his history and legacy. This speech was a charge to America and the world to take action on peace instead of talking about it, to help out all those facing injustice or whose lives feel threatened. However, Dr. King gave SMU and Dallas a similar charge that we have yet to take up. On March 17, 1966, Dr. King spoke to the SMU community in a speech titled “We Have Come a Long, Long Way but We Still Have a Long, Long Way to Go.”

With recent events on college campuses regarding race and policy change, Dr. King’s speech could not be any more relevant. Here at SMU, the #BlackAtSMU movement has joined other campus conversations on voicing their concerns, demands, and hope for change. As a student of color on campus, I understand the challenges facing minorities and believe that universities could take steps toward addressing the concerns of students. With the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s speech to SMU approaching, we, as SMU students, faculty, and staff should ask an important question: “Have we made it to the hilltop?” If Dr. King were to come to SMU’s campus today, would he see world changers? If YikYak and other social media were present during his time, would it surprise him to see that thoughts and feelings really haven’t changed? With these questions, here are my thoughts on #BlackatSMU.

Over the past several years, the United States has faced issues that mirror its dark, gloomy past of racial inequality. With the election of an African-American president, some believed that we had reached the dream Dr. King envisioned. However, that hope would soon fade away with an event in Sanford, Florida. Police brutality became the topic of conversation, hash-tags signaled a movement, and millennial youth became the agents of change. The murders of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice seemed to echo the spirits of Emmett Till and Jimmie Lee Jackson. My grandparents told the story of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed 4 young girls in Birmingham. The story I will tell my grandchildren is about the Charleston Nine who were massacred at Emmanuel AME church.

For the African-American community, it seems we have taken one step forward while taking one step back. So now, to my SMU colleagues, I call on you to think on the words Dr. King gave in his “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me? But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ That’s the question before you tonight.” As students voice their concerns, are you more willing to criticize them or listen to them? To tell college students to grow thicker skin is contradictory to the majority of students whose skin has been weakened by the harsh winds of racism. Instead of telling others to grow thicker skin, I sit back and wonder if you could grow a bigger heart or an open mind. SMU students carry the task of being world changers, but we cannot be world changers until we make it past the hilltop. Our journey to becoming to world changers starts here—will you answer the call?

With that, here are Dr. King’s words to SMU:

  1. “The one that I get over and over again as I journey around our nation is the question whether we are making any real progress in race relations. It is a poignant and desperate question on the lips of thousands and millions of people all over this nation…I would say that we have come a long, long way in our struggle to make justice a reality for all men, but we have a long, long way to go before the problem is solved.”
  2. “I may leave you the victims of an illusion wrapped in superficiality. So, in order to tell the truth, it is necessary to move on and say not only have we come a long, long way, we still have a long, long way to go before the problem of racial injustice is solved in our country. Now I need not dwell on this point. We need only turn on our televisions and open our newspapers and look around our community. We see that the problem is still with us.”
  3. I need not remind you of the dangers here. There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society with a large segment of people in that society who feel they have no stake in it, who feel they have nothing to do. These are the people who will riot. And in spite of the pleas for nonviolence, they often fall on deaf ears out of the frustrations of poverty, out of the frustrations of being left on the periphery of life, pushed out of the main stream of life. Out of the heaving desperation surrounding their days, they often end up seeing life as a long and desperate corridor with no exit sign.”1
  4. “I know there are those who would say the days of demonstrations are over. I wish I could be as optimistic. As long as injustice is around, it will be necessary to bring that injustice to the surface. As long as you have consciences that will allow themselves to doze and go to sleep, it is necessary to do something to sear the conscience, to dramatize the issue, to call attention to it.” 
  5. “You certainly can’t be telling us to love these people who are oppressing us and who are killing our children and who are bombing our churches. And I always have to stop and try to explain what I mean when I talk about love in this context. You know that even his church didn’t help him out to clarify his views too much on that problem. And so he ended up being taught something that he grew up believing. And so you, out of love, stand up because you want to redeem him and the object is never to annihilate your opponent but to convert him and bring him to that brighter day when he can stand up and see that all men are brothers.” 

The transcript to Dr. King’s speech can be found online at https://www.smu.edu/News/2014/mlk-at-smu-transcript-17march1966.

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