Lookout Mountain lives forever in iconic speech

photo Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks at a 1964 press conference.

SPEECH READINGOrchard Knob Elementary School fourth-graders along with Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park representatives will read the "I Have a Dream" speech Wednesday at Point Park on Lookout Mountain. The group will meet at the New York Peace Monument and read the speech at 2:30. Bells will ring out at 3 p.m., allowing Chattanooga area residents to participate in a nationwide ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of King's speech.

Lookout Mountain is forever memorialized in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered to more than 200,000 people at the historic March on Washington in April 1963.

But other than the fact that King was familiar with Chattanooga and interviewed for a job here in 1953, one of the nation's foremost experts on the late civil rights leader says he doesn't know of any specific reason that Lookout Mountain was mentioned.

"Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California," King said in his speech. "But not only that. Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee."

The speech and event symbolized a movement that offered more opportunities for equality not just for blacks, but women, people with disabilities and others, said Dr. Clayborne Carson, historian and founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

Reuben Lawrence, a Lookout Mountain resident, said his heart almost popped out of his chest in 1963 when he heard King mention the mountain as he watched the march on television with his family.

He was born on the mountain in 1935. His son, Reuben Jr., became the first black to integrate Lookout Mountain Elementary School in 1962, a year before King delivered his speech.

"I bet he didn't know I was living here then," said Lawrence.

Lookout Mountain was segregated in the 1960s but it was a different type of segregation. Several wealthy whites were helpful to blacks who lived and worked on the mountain as domestic help, he recalled.

At least 100 blacks lived on the mountain in the 1960s. That number has dwindled to about 15 now, he said.

He said he remembered some white women on the mountain working with his mother to get better books for black students. Whites also gave financial assistance for some blacks to attend college, he said.

King probably knew of the wealth that was on Lookout Mountain and referred to it because of that, said Lawrence.

Carson said King used Lookout Mountain to help paint a word picture of the country. Stone Mountain, Ga., which is also mentioned in the speech, is where the Ku Klux Klan had a rebirth around 1915, Carson said.

Other places mentioned by King include "the prodigious hilltops" of New Hampshire, "the mighty mountains" of New York, the Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado and the curvaceous slopes of California.

And after Stone Mountain and Lookout Mountain, King said, "Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi."

King may have included Lookout Mountain because he spent time in the Chattanooga area, Lawrence said.

He came in 1953, at age 24, to interview for a job as pastor of First Baptist Church on East Eighth Street and preached at the church several times, but he was turned down because church officials thought he didn't have enough experience.

When he returned to Chattanooga in 1962 he was president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He had become pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., and led the 1955 bus boycott. He returned to Chattanooga to speak at the annual board meeting for the leadership conference held at the Memorial Auditorium.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.