I heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speak for the first time when he gave the Founders’ Day address in Spelman College’s Sisters Chapel during my senior year of college. His subject that day was “Keep Moving from This Mountain.” Dr. King said he wanted to start by taking us way back to the people Moses was called to lead out of the Egypt of slavery and into the Promised Land, and noted that after they realized they would have to go through a long and difficult wilderness to get there, three kinds of attitudes emerged:
“One group wanted to go back to Egypt: they felt that the fleshpots of Egypt were more to be desired than the ordeals of emancipation. Then you had a second group that abhorred the idea of going back to Egypt, and yet could not quite attain the discipline and the sacrifice to go on to Canaan. These people chose the line of least resistance. There was a third group, probably the creative minority, which said in substance, ‘We will go on in spite of the obstacles, in spite of the difficulty, in spite of the sacrifices that we will have to make.’”
Dr. King told us we could find the same three groups in every movement toward freedom and fulfillment. Of course, most of us would like to believe we’d immediately be in the third group. But Dr. King said he wanted to focus on the second.
He described the message to the people standing still: “Whenever God speaks, he says go forward, saying in substance that you must never become bogged down in mountains and situations that will impede your progress. You must never become complacently adjusted to unobtained goals; ‘you have been in this mountain long enough, turn ye and take your journey.’” Dr. King then spoke about the four symbolic mountains of moral and ethical relativism, materialism, segregation, and violence that he believed we would need to overcome in our time for our nation and world to survive. Above all, he gave us courage and hope about how to hold faith in the future and keep going.
Dr. King said: “I do not stand here as a detached spectator. As I say to you this afternoon, have faith in the future, I speak as one who lives every day amidst the threat of death. I speak as one who has had to stand often amidst the surging murmur of life’s restless sea, I speak as one who has been battered often by the jostling winds of adversity, but I have faith in the future. I have faith in the future because I have faith in God and I believe that there is a power, a creative force in this universe seeking at all times to bring down prodigious hilltops of evil and pull low gigantic mountains of injustice. If we will believe this and struggle along, we will be able to achieve it.”
He continued: “Keep moving, for it may well be that the greatest song has not yet been sung, the greatest book has not been written, the highest mountain has not been climbed. This is your challenge! Reach out and grab it and make it a part of your life. Reach up beyond cloud-filled skies of oppression and bring out blazing stars of inspiration. The basic thing is to keep moving. Move out of these mountains that impede our progress to this new and noble and marvelous land. Langston Hughes said something very beautiful in ‘Mother to Son’:
Well son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
Dr. King concluded: “Life for none of us has been a crystal stair, but there is something we can learn from the broken grammar of that mother, that we must keep moving. If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl; but by all means keep moving.”
That entire last line was one of many passages I wrote down nearly word-for-word in my college diary that evening. I ended that day’s entry: “Sitting in my room listening to Brahms’ violin concerto, again my mind goes to Martin Luther King and life. What people do with life—how much some do and others how little. Thank God for a glimpse of beauty, a taste of life’s savor. I must go back for more and more. I want to live. To live well, high, humble, loving completely.”
The words that inspired me as a twenty-year-old have the same power today. On the holiday honoring Dr. King’s legacy and every day, we should be pushed forward by the same message: keep moving.