James Edward Mills,
Fifty years ago this summer in 1964 Charles Madison Crenchaw became the first African-American to climb to the summit of Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America. Also known as Denali this peak represents the highest physical point that anyone can achieve in this country. And as metaphor of freedom, this seminal moment in history beautifully illustrates the references to mountains alluded to in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.
“This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
When Ebony magazine published the story of the March on Washington in November 1963 the same issue included a feature on an aspiring black mountaineer named Crenchaw. King’s speech may well have inspired this little known climber to reach for and achieve the summit of Denali just a year later. As it happens Crenchaw reached the top of America just seven days after the Civil Rights Amendment was signed into law.