AT THE CONCLUSION OF HIS FAMOUS “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Martin Luther King Jr., said “We’ve got some difficult days ahead.” He made the speech on April 3, 1968, to a crowd of striking sanitation workers at Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn. He had flown into town from Atlanta under threats on his life. In his speech, he said the lethal warnings were coming from “some of our sick white brothers.”

In the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., carried out by violent Trump supporters, a mob of overwhelmingly white men, many of them armed, King’s words about the “difficult days ahead,” are haunting, prescient, and a sad commentary on American progress, half a century on, as the nation’s capital is fortified with 20,000 National Guard troops (and multiple police agencies) in order to secure the inauguration of President-Elect Joseph R. Biden on Jan. 20.

The day after he gave his ‘Mountaintop’ speech, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Many artists have paid tribute to King in their work, including Sam Gilliam, Jack Whitten, and Thorton Dial Sr., three artists working in abstraction.


THORNTON DIAL SR. (1928-2016), “The Last Day of Martin Luther King,” 1992 (wood, carpet, rope carpet, wire screen, metal pans, broken glass, broom, mop cords, cloth, string, enamel, and Splash Zone compound on canvas on wood, 6 feet 8 inches × 9 feet 5 1/2 inches × 4 1/2 inches). | © Estate of Thornton Dial/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Gamma One Conversions. Purchased with the George W. Elkins fund, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2017. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2019

 

Last year, the Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired Dial’s “The Last Day of Martin Luther King” (1992) from the Souls Grow Deep Foundation, part of cache of works by African American artists from the U.S. South, brought into the museum’s collection. The late Alabama artist lived and worked in Bessemer.

Dial’s large-scale, assemblage work references the civil rights leader’s assassination on April 4, 1968, a moment of national tragedy and mourning reflected in an unwieldy mix of materials, including wood, carpet, wire screen, metal pans, and broken glass. The contrasting array of textures and patterns evokes the emotion of advancements met with setbacks, against a sense of calm, seriousness, and determination conveyed through the limited-color palette.

The murder of King was an inflection point in American race relations. The current moment possesses similar gravity with added concern about the strength of American democracy and national security.

At the conclusion of his speech, King said:

    I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane–there were six of us–the pilot said over the public address system: “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”

    And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out (Yeah), or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers.

    Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. (Amen) But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. (Yeah) [Applause] And I don’t mind. [Applause continues] 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. (Yeah) And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. (Go ahead) And I’ve looked over (Yes sir), and I’ve seen the Promised Land. (Go ahead) I may not get there with you. (Go ahead) But I want you to know tonight (Yes), that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. [Applause] (Go ahead, Go ahead)

    And so 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. [Applause]

“I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. (Amen) But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

Difficult days lay ahead. Promise is present, too, with another chapter in the nation’s narrative on the horizon, under the Biden-Harris Administration, including the historic election of Kamala Harris, who will be the first female, first Black, and first Asian American Vice President of the United States. CT

 

UPDATED (01/19/21): Added video and Bookshelf selections

 


April 3, 1968: Excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech to striking sanitation workers at Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn. | Video by Smithsonian Channel

 

BOOKSHELF
Martin Luther King Jr., is the subject of countless books. “A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches” gathers his writing and speeches. From Clayborne Carson, director of Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” draws on archives and offers a definitive reflection on King in his own words. For children, “Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Doreen Rappaport, with illustrations by Brian Collier, won Caldecott and Coretta Scott King Awards. The work of Thornton Dial is featured in three recent volumes exploring art by African American artists from the U.S. South: “My Soul Has Grown Deep: Black Art from the American South,” “Revelations: Art from the African American South,” and “History Refused to Die: The Enduring Legacy of African American Art in Alabama.” An earlier volume, “Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger” is the exhibition catalog for Dial’s first solo museum show, which opened at the New Museum in New York in 1993. The image-rich volume “Thornton Dial in the 21st Century” coincided with a 2005 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, that included a series of large-scale works Dial created in tribute to the Gee’s Bend artists. “Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial” also considers Dial’s work in context with the Alabama quilt artists. Also consider “Thornton Dial: Thoughts on Paper” and “Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial.”

 

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