The Death of MLK 50 Years On

Fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. MLK’s life was one dedicated to the quest for justice and equity, and he left behind an important and enduring legacy. After achieving landmark reform with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Act, MLK turned his attention to the war on poverty and to achieving racial justice throughout the nation.

He rose to national prominence fighting against de juro or legal segregation, but he very clearly understood that de facto segregation and continued bigotry were obstacle to his dream of an equal and just society. The courage he demonstrated in his quest for social justice is so inspiring. He experienced harassment from racist organizations and the FBI. He experienced death threats and other assassination attempts. He also demonstrated significant patience and determination. As some commentators have pointed out, he gained national attention with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 – yet it took nearly a decade for substantial reform to be enacted into law. He was tenacious but compassionate, tough but also modeled non-violence.

I thought this week I would share the video of his last speech in Memphis, the night before he was killed. The part most will recognize are the closing lines that follow him talking about the threat he had faced:

“I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us.

The pilot said over the public address system, ‘We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.’

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, 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!

And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

I’m not fearing any man.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

This always sends chills down my spine.

He had come to Memphis to support a strike by sanitation workers. A book to read is Hampton Sides, Hellhounds on His Trail, which discusses King’s final hours and the FBI’s hunt to track down his killer. King was only 39 when he was killed, but if you watch his inspirational speech, he looks much older. The stress and pressure of all that he was carrying clearly had affected him. Yet, he offered a hopeful message.

He spends time discussing if God could allow him to live in any time in history, what period would he choose. As he goes through wanting to talk to the ancient Greeks, wanting to see Roman Empire in its prime, wanting to witness the Renaissance, and wanting to be there to see Abraham Lincoln sign the Emancipation Proclamation, he claims, “Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.’”

His analysis here is fascinating and relevant to our turbulent times. It is better to see/hear in his words. It is important to note that he gave this speech in 1968, perhaps one of the most divisive and violent years in American history. The Vietnam War was at its most intense. There were protests and other political assassinations, including the murder of Robert F. Kennedy. Some of this history was about to unfold in painful ways, but King clearly aware of the violence of his times:

“Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding. Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’”

His next paragraph reminds me of how, in the darkest of times, there can be hope for the future:

“And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.”

Another great book on King is Taylor Branch’s At Canaan’s Edge. Right before King was shot, he was speaking to his colleagues, including a saxophonist named Ben Branch, who was going to play at a meeting King was to attend. Moments before the shot that killed him rang out, King said, “Ben, make sure you play ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand,’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” Branch recounts in his book what happened next: “Solomon Jones, the volunteer chauffeur, called up to bring coats for a chilly night. There was no reply. Time on the balcony had turned lethal, which left hanging the last words fixed on a gospel song of refuge. King stood still for once, and his sojourn on earth went blank.” (Source.)

I hope you might spend time with your family in the next week watching the video of King’s last speech and reflecting on his life and courage. I hope we can remind ourselves that each of us possess the ability “to see the stars” in times of darkness.