5. The Promise True and Grand
Written and performed by Washington White
10’’ single (Victor Records, USA 1930)



One: On Memphis

Memphis and Thebes were the principal capitals of ancient Egypt. Memphis served as the first capital and the centre of the Egyptian government. According to tradition, King Menes founded the city in 3100 BC. Its ruins can now be found 20 kilometres south of Cairo. Menes is traditionally considered to be the founder of the first royal dynasty in ancient Egypt, which ruled the country for about 400 years. During this period, Egyptians developed a national government and began to use writing.’ [1]

Ancient Egypt – History. Sample Ancient Egypt – History Worksheet, by Ekaterina Zhdanova-Redman


In The Bible, Memphis is only mentioned as such in Hosea 9:6:‘What will you do on the day of the appointed festival, and on the day of the feast of The Lord? For behold, they are going to Assyria; Egypt shall gather them, Memphis shall bury them. Nettles shall possess their precious things of silver; thorns shall be in their tents.’ [2]

Ancient Memphis, by Wayne Blank, Church of God Daily Bible Study


Memphis’ first inhabitants were Native American Indians who lived along the Mississippi River for 10,000 years along the wooded river bluffs. A thousand years before foreign explorers entered the region, Chickasaw Indians controlled the bluffs. These Indians came to be known as Mound builders, for the massive mounds they built that now overlook the Mississippi River by DeSoto Park.

The first European to view the river from Memphis was the Spaniard explorer Hernando DeSoto, who crossed the Mississippi near Memphis in 1541. A hundred years later French explorers Fathers Marquette and Joliet sailed down the river through Memphis. Sieur de LaSalle would later follow and build Fort Prudhomme around 1682. In 1739 the French built a garrison, Fort Assumption.

After the French and Indian War in 1763, England gained control of the bluffs although the area was Chickasaw by treaty. The Indians, French, English, Spanish and new ‘Americans’ coexisted along the river trading and skirmishing until Tennessee became a U.S. territory in 1790, and then a state in 1796. Although this land legally belonged to the Chickasaw Indians, the new settlers would eventually take it over. In 1818 the Chickasaws relinquished their northern territory, including the land that would become the City of Memphis.

General/President Andrew Jackson, General James Winchester and Judge John Overton were considered the ‘founders’ of Memphis. The city was surveyed and designed in 1819. At the time Memphis was only four blocks wide and had a population of around fifty people. Marcus Winchester, the General’s son, was made the first mayor. […] From its beginnings, Memphis has been an important location for markets, exchanges, travel and distribution. Before the Civil War, Memphis’ rich delta soil contributed to its economic base, known as ‘King Cotton.’ Unfortunately, slavery was the key piece to this commerce and agri-business. The labourers who farmed the land, built the buildings and roads, and operated households were West Africans captured and traded as slaves. Even the names of Memphis’ four original town squares – Exchange, Market, Court, and Auction are a grim reminder of the slavery that helped build the city.’ [3]

History of Memphis, http://www.memphistn.gov/framework.aspx?page=296


Two: ‘blessed is he that readeth,’ (The Revelations of Saint John The Divine 1:3) [4]

Here is The Promise True and Grand, a song recorded in Memphis on May 26th 1930.

The song expresses a longing for the end of time, which will inaugurate the singer’s journey to a place, beyond the sea, beyond the veil of life, where the singer, Booker T Washington White, and his friends, family and loved ones, shall join hands with the angels on a journey to a promised land. Of the time and place where the journey begins, White says, ‘we’ll meet at eleven on the stand, we shall meet with the snow white angels there.’ [5] It’s a song that begins with a proclamation, ‘I have read of the promise true and grand’, [6] and slides into a description of visionary, future events.

It’s a song whose words slide in and out of a slurring drawl that dissolves the words with the result that the words that we could discern were so clear in their strange imagery that listening to the song was like listening, in a dream, to a stranger: he’s speaking to us, telling us something important, something familiar if remotely so, and even though his voice retains its clarity, his words fade in and out of intelligibility, sliding off meaning’s register, taking with them valuable images and events, and leaving in their place something much stranger and far less familiar. There is the proclamation, and there are, so far as we can tell, images and projections into the future:

The river of life is cold as stone
We’ll flow so free
We shall rapture we shall pray
We shall all behold.
The streets are paved with purest gold
There’s a promise that’s made for you and me
Beyond the sea
Beyond the veil
I long to view that Promised Land
O Lord hear our plea, how long will it be? [7]


We followed the song’s refrain, its question, to its Biblical source, in the King James version of The Revelation of Saint John the Divine, Verse 9, Chapter 6, and the events which take place just before the sun becomes as dark as ash-cloth, the moon turns to blood, the stars fall from the sky, and a giant angel announces the end of time – the collapse, as it were, of our space-time continuum.

The verse reads: ‘And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held, How Long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?’ [8] These souls turn out to be the ones who are saved during the destruction of heaven and hell and, obviously, planet Earth – ‘these are they which came out of great tribulation.’ (Rev 7:14) [9]

The streets of the promised land White describes, are paved with purest gold – the streets of the new Jerusalem, the city of gold, ‘clear unto glass’ [10]; this city, this land, this textual space of which White tells us he has read, is described in The Revelation of Saint John the Divine: ‘And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven.’ (Rev 21:1&2) [11]

Booker T Washington White was born in 1909, in Aberdeen, Mississippi. He was a pioneering master of the delta blues. We don’t want to reduce his song’s revelatory, dreamlike poetry to something as mundane as questions of social environment, but it is worth bearing in mind that the African American community of which White was a part, was the subject of the all too real force of the fantasies of racial purification that framed the work and the world of White’s country music contemporary – you remember John Carson, the water carrier who worked under black men in the South, learned his style from them and then reinvented himself as an outlaw drifter – Fiddlin’ John Carson, close friend of powerful Southern segregationists and proud member of the Ku Klux Klan; he recorded This Ship is Sailing for the Promised Land (song 38 in this website) around the same time Booker T Washington White recorded The Promise True and Grand.

Maybe the force of that world and its fantasies had some role in compelling White’s visionary reading of and pleading for the coming of a new order, a new Earth, compelling him, ironically, to the same fantasy of impossible migration by way of a scenario of Armageddon, divine elect, and Edenic aftermath, as that imagined by John Carson.

But on the horizon of White’s song there is the narrative of the coming of a new community, the new Jerusalem, alluded to from the space of the community to which White belonged, the limits of whose life and expectations was given force by State law – although not harshly enough by the standards of Carson and his friends.

Booker T Washington White sang from within the public space of his community’s dreams, wishes, phantoms, and fantasies, the public space in which it reflects and thinks aloud, the space of the recorded song, for his community, for whom full presence under the law was as distant as the fantasy of the end of the law was compelling. The end of the law on Earth and the coming of the new community is rooted in a desire for a space, beyond the Mississippi of 1909 or the Memphis of 1930, in which a community of black men, women, and children will join the hands of ‘snow white angels’.

Oh Lord hear our plea’ [12]: for this community complete presence in American society was made impossible by the force of the fantasies of Carson, his friends, contemporaries, and predecessors. These fantasies were taken seriously enough in America to have their correlatives in State law. Beyond America, their ideas about racial extermination were taken just as seriously. You’ll recall we mentioned, in song 38, Madison Grant’s book on eugenics, The Passing of the Great Race (subtitle; The racial basis of European history). Well, fourteen years after its publication in the U.S in 1916, Grant’s book was still popular enough to have been translated into German in 1930. It was also the first non-German book ordered to be reprinted by the Nazis when they came to power. Adolf Hitler wrote a letter to Grant of which Grant was very proud. ‘The book’, Hitler wrote, ‘is my Bible’. [13] Against the force of this world, these fantasies, White, in Memphis on May 26 1930 recorded The Promise True and Grand.

It is, against this world, a song compelled into shape by the urgent necessity of the end of this world and the centuries before it, stretching off into the darkness of time, a song about holding hands with angels: a song in which this world – in the person of the singer, the words of John the Revelator cast to memory, alive inside him – is alive in the text of Revelation.

The river of life is cold as stone, we’ll flow so free’ [14]: it is a song in which the despised Negro becomes the divine elect of the Bible’s final text and, in reconciliation of the privations of the world and the body, comes face to face with God: ‘And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruit every month; and the leaves of the trees were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and the Lamb shall be on it: and his servants shall serve him: and they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads.’ [15]

It is envisioned in the song that this vision of Saint John, from Revelation 22:1-4, will come to pass and that this community will be there when it does, to see the face of God.

But when? – ‘How long will it be?’ The answer, in The Revelation of Saint John The Divine, chapter six verse eleven, reads: ‘[…] and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.’ Their reward: they will sit before the throne of God and he will dwell among them (Rev 7:15): ‘They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them unto living fountains of waters; and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.’ [16] That’s Revelation 7:16 and 17. Saint John tells us, later on in his account of the apocalypse, of this elect singing the song of Moses just before the seven angels of the plague of God’s wrath set themselves to work on the Earth. On Memphis, on Mississippi, everywhere…


Three: ‘I’m glad I came to Memphis.’

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Community On the Move for Equality invite you To March for Justice and Jobs. Friday, March 22, 1968 9:00 A.M From Clayborn Temple A.M.E Church 280 Hernando. We ask you to stay away from work or school and walk with more than 10,000 people who want Memphis once and for all to learn that it must be a city for all people. A man is a man. God requires that a man be treated like a man. Memphis must do this in work, play, education, by the police and in all other ways the rights of each man must be upheld. This will be a march of dignity. The only force we will use is soul-force which is peaceful, loving, courageous, yet militant.’ [17]

On Memphis, with Memphis in mind, our account of White’s reading of Revelation’s promise of the new Jerusalem, his account of the new Jerusalem as a promised land, (the promised land moved, from the Earth, where it functioned as a symbol of a promise between God and Moses, to a place created after the end of time, a symbol of God having done with the Earth, heaven and hell and all but a handful of humans) is haunted by a chain of events which took place in Memphis thirty eight years after Booker T Washington White walked into a recording studio in that city and recorded The Promise True and Grand.

These events began with strike action by the city’s African American sanitation workers union, AFSCME Local 1733, at the centre of which was the question of racial discrimination. From the records of the AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees):

While the workers struck for union recognition, pay increase, a grievance procedure, and dues deduction, racial discrimination was also a major target of the strike. In fact, inequality between black and white sanitation men was the major impetus for the strike. White sanitation workers enjoyed many benefits not shared by their African American counterparts. When it rained, white workers were allowed to go home and still be paid. Black workers had to remain at work or lose payment that day. One day, while rain poured down, two black sanitation workers [Echol Cole and Robert Walker] got into the back of their garbage truck to stay dry. The truck shortcircuited, and the two men were crushed to death. After this, Local 1733 began its strike.’ [18]

The strike had been a long time coming: the plight of the sanitation workers was a microcosm of the experience of the Memphis’ black working class: Most black sanitation workers lived below the poverty line and forty percent were on welfare – in fact over half of the city’s black community lived below the poverty line, they earned less and died younger than their white counterparts. The sanitation workers had been trying to get union recognised by Memphis city council since 1963.

Memphis city council refused to recognise the workers demands. After two months the strike had became a violent national issue involving the president and the National Guard. Martin Luther King, Jr. was invited by civil rights leaders to Memphis to support the strikers and organise marches. King’s visit to Memphis was part of a campaign organised by his organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to bring international attention to the plight of America’s poor by marching to Washington.

King visited Memphis twice. On his first visit, on March 18, he told the sanitation workers about the campaign and urged them to support it:

I read in newspapers and other places, questions, ‘Why are you going to Washington?’ My only answer is that anybody who lives in America with open eyes and an open mind knows that there is something wrong in this nation. I’m going to Washington to pick up my cheque. You know, many years ago, America signed a huge promissory note… which said, ‘we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ It didn’t say. ‘Some men’, it said ‘All men,’ It didn’t say ‘All white men’, it said, ‘All men’, which includes black men. It said that every person has certain basic rights that are neither derived from or conferred from the state. In order to discover where they come from it is necessary to move back behind the dim mist of eternity. They are God-given. America hasn’t lived up to this. She gave the black man a bad cheque that’s been bouncing all around… We are going to demand our cheque… to say to this nation, ‘We know that that cheque couldn’t have bounced, you have the resources in the federal treasury. We are going to also say, ‘You are even unjustly spending five hundred thousand dollars to kill a single Viet Cong soldier, while you spend only fifty three dollars a year per person for everybody categorised as poverty stricken,’ Instead of spending 35 billion dollars every year to fight an unjust, ill-conceived war in Vietnam and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, we need to put God’s children on their own two feet. I ask you to make this the beginning of the Washington movement – to go in by the thousands. And help us stand up non-violently yet militantly. We are going to plague Congress. […]’ [19]

And then King described to the sanitation workers the breadth of the campaign, making mention of South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Milwaukee, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, as well as Memphis, and telling the sanitation workers of his hope for the campaign: ‘One day I want to see it so great and powerful, some of the Congress will stand at the windows of Congress. They will turn around and say, ‘Who are these people? Where are they coming from?’ And I want somebody to the Congress, Congressman and say, ‘These are they…who are coming up out of Mississippi and Alabama. These are they who are tired of years of oppression and denial. These are they… coming out of the ghettoes of Chicago and Detroit. These are they… coming up out of great tribulation.’ [20]

King’s pronouncements on poverty, on America’s foreign policy, and his attempt at bringing the massed black and white poor to the government’s doorstep, all earned him the hostility of the mainstream media. Going to Memphis was viewed as another example of the civil rights leader entertaining ideas above his station. His speech, Beyond Vietnam, delivered in New York in April 1967, had made him America’s most visible and vilified opponent of the Vietnam War.

In Beyond Vietnam King called the U.S. ‘the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today’. He asked why the U.S. was suppressing revolutions ‘of the shirtless and barefoot people’ [21] in the Third World, instead of supporting them. He criticised ‘capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries’. [22] These comments were still fresh in the memory of the media and some of his allies when he declared the Poor People’s Campaign in December that year. Some of his fellow activists feared the Campaign would diminish valuable white support for the civil rights movement. Some sections of the press feared the Campaign would lead to insurrection.

King was beleaguered but undaunted. Most of you will be familiar with I’ve been to the Mountaintop, the speech King gave to the sanitation workers on his return to Memphis. It starts with him talking about Memphis, and about time travel.

He says to them, ‘Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, ‘Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?’ I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the Promised Land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.’ [23]

He said that the place he would stop was Memphis. Maybe he said Memphis because he knew he was going to share with them his idea, his journey, his vision, his profound and impassioned flight of fancy – a mental flight from the beginning of time to a place which has yet to exist and may, not- withstanding his insistence to the contrary, never exist.

Reading Beyond Vietnam and I’ve Been To the Mountain Top and thinking about his Poor Peoples Campaign, we wonder whether the transformation suggested by the proposals in these works were actually proposals for a kind of end of the time against which King had turned his back in order to view the space he called the Promised Land – a land, a world, without the oppressive forces he had spoken about in these works, a world in which international and local relations were governed by the principle of non-violence, a world beyond militarism, beyond the exploitation of the Earth’s human and natural resources by the wealthy few.

He told the sanitation workers that God had allowed him ‘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!’ [24]

We imagine it would have been important to King to share with the sanitation workers his experience of where he’d been and what he’d seen, to reveal figuratively – through an inner experience, a visioning – a possibility, a life or death necessity, because the sanitation workers were the kind of people, the very people, along with the shoeless Third World peasants and the massed armies of the black and white poor who, from necessity, would force this world into being – this would be their world, a distant land, a place in the mind’s eye whose existence he had confirmed by way of witness, by way of flight, and he needed to tell them he knew they would enter that land. They needed to know this and they needed to keep it in mind. Maybe he knew this was the most important thing he’d ever say to anyone, the most profound insight he would share. He said to the sanitation workers, ‘I’m glad I came to Memphis.’ [25]

There’s a passage in I’ve been to the Mountaintop, toward the end, which is perhaps a bit less well known than the sermon’s Promised Land crescendo, appearing as it does before King urges strikers and their supporters to wage an economic boycott of Memphis stores. This brief passage serves as a declaration to his critics of his intransigence, a warning against poetic flights of fancy divorced from participation in bringing about the end of [this] time – King’s time, transformed by the passage of the Civil Rights Act, connected to Booker T Washington White’s time, and further back, ‘to the beginning of time’, by an idea, a reading by White, an exposition by King, through the apocalyptic language of the Revelation, on the location and terrain of the space which ‘must’ become, and already is, the ‘Promised Land’ – in advance of ‘the coming of the Lord’, in advance of arriving in, through creating, the ‘Promised land ’, and a reflection on the role and responsibility of the preacher:

 ‘It’s all right to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder,’ in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It’s all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the New Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.’ [26]


[1] Ancient Egypt – History. Sample Ancient Egypt – History Worksheet, by Ekaterina Zhdanova-Redman

[2] Ancient Memphis, by Wayne Blank, Church of God Daily Bible Study

[3] History of Memphis

[4] The Revelation of Saint John The Divine. The Holy Bible, King James Version, Harper Collins, 1957

[5] The Promise True and Grand, by Booker T Washington White, Victor, 1930

[6 & 7] White

[8-11] The Revelation of Saint John The Divine. The Holy Bible, King James Version, Harper Collins, 1957

[12] White

[13] Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant, by J.P Spiro, Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England 2008, quoted in Madison Grant http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madison_Grant

[14] White

[15 & 16] The Revelation of Saint John The Divine. The Holy Bible, King James Version, Harper Collins, 1957

[17] Teaching With Documents: Court Documents Related to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Memphis Sanitation Workers

[18] www.reuther.wayne.edu/files/LR001992.pdf

[19 & 20] http://mlkkpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/address_at_mass_meeting_at_the_bishop_charles_mason_temple/

[21] Beyond Vietnam, by Martin Luther King. Quoted in The Martin Luther King You Don’t See on TV, by Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, FAIR [Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting] – Challenging Media Bias and Censorship since 1986, Media Beat, 1 April 1995

[22] Cohen & Solomon

[23] I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, by Martin Luther King, Jr, 3 April 1968, Mason Temple Church of God in Christ Headquarters, Memphis, Tennessee

[24-26] King



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