- Martin Luther King Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” April 3, 1969
“If we truly want a legacy of peace for our children, we need to understand that this is a war that will ultimately be won with books, not with bombs.”
“Your President Bush has done a wonderful job of uniting one billion Muslims against America for the next two hundred years.”
- Brigadier General Bashir Baz on the U.S. invasion of Iraq
Today, we remember the last speech Dr. Martin Luther King ever gave. It was a speech in support of the striking sanitation workers in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated. Who doesn’t remember these lines from the speech?
Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. 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. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.In September 1992 Greg Mortenson had his own experience with a mountaintop. An experienced climber, this tall American attempted to get to the summit of K2, the second-highest peak in the world located on the Pakistan/Chinese border, and probably the most difficult to climb of any, including Mt. Everest a thousand miles to the southeast.
But Greg didn’t make it to the summit. He and his partner gave up their bid for the summit 600 meters short in order to save another climber. On his way down in defeat, he was separated from his partner and from the porter he had hired to carry his things down the mountain. Two times on his way down, Mortenson lost his way. But in losing his way, he found his way to Korphe, surely one of the most remote villages in the world. Moved by the villagers’ kindness, he promised to return and build a school. In the faces of the children he saw “the promised land.”
Mortenson began building secular schools for boys and girls in the most physically and politically forbidding terrain on the planet. The story is told in the best-selling book, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time. I’ve just finished reading the book and other sources on Mortenson. Tom Brokaw has it right:
Three Cups of Tea is one of the most remarkable adventure stories of our time. Greg Mortenson’s dangerous and difficult quest to build schools in the wildest parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan is not only a thrilling read, it’s proof that one ordinary person, with the right combination of character and determination, really can change the world.”Living on meager rations that most Americans will have a hard time imagining, Mortenson saved every dollar he could get his hands on to build schools. In his relations with Pakistanis and Afghans he was everything the “ugly American” wasn’t.
After 10 years on April 6, 2003, as American ground forces massed on the outskirts of Baghdad, preparing for a final assault on the capital, thirty-four million copies of Parade Magazine with a picture of Greg on the cover brought his effort national attention:
“If we try to resolve terrorism with military might and nothing else, then we will be no safer than were before 9/11. If we truly want a legacy of peace for our children, we need to understand that this is a war that will ultimately be won with books, not with bombs.”It was the same message he had taken to a gathering of U.S. Congress members not long after 9/11:
Terrorism happens because children aren’t being offered a bright enough future.Three Cups of Tea is not only an astonishing tale of compassion and a promise kept, but an indictment of the Bush administration. One sees the destruction of Afghanistan—men, women, children, the land—by the Taliban and by the U.S. The thing that angers Mortenson most in Afghanistan is the failure of the U.S. to provide the money for education and reconstruction it promised; money that has been diverted to the war in Iraq.
On the war in Iraq, Mortenson tells how Brigadier General Bashir Bas in Pakistan, one of the great supporters of the efforts to educate all of Pakistan’s children, reacted as they both watched a CNN feed of Iraqi women carrying children’s bodies out of the rubble of a bombed building:
“People like me are America’s best friends in the region,” Bashir said at last, shaking his head ruefully. “I am a moderate Muslim, an educated man. But watching this, even I could become a jihadi. How can Americans say they are making themselves safer?” Bashir asked, struggling not to direct his anger toward the large American target on the other side of his desk. “Your President Bush has done a wonderful job of uniting one billion Muslims against America for the next two hundred years.The good news is that Greg Mortenson, through his Central Asia Institute, with his colleagues across the world, continues to promote and provide community-based education and literacy programs, especially for girls, in remote mountain regions of Central Asia.
“Osama had something to do with it, too,” Mortenson said.
“Osama, baah!” Bashir roared. “Osama is not a product of Pakistan or Afghanistan. He is a creation of America. Thanks to America, Osama is in every home… You have to attack the source of your enemy’s strength. In America’s case, that’s not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise the fight will go on forever.”
Dr. King was killed twenty-two years before Greg Mortenson went to the mountain and gained his own vision of the “promised land.” Had they met, I think they would have understood each other and recognized that they were colleagues in a common struggle for justice. They are “stars” in the “darkness” that surrounded us in 1968 and now in 2008.