April 04, 2014
On this day in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It seems ironic that only the night before he told hundreds of people in a speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, “It is no longer a choice between violence and non-violence in this world. It is non-violence or non-existence.” Words that are still painfully true today, rang high over the heads of the congregation as if to challenge the roar of thunderclaps and rain beating down on the Temple’s roof during a wild electrical storm…or to even challenge destiny itself.
Dr. King was deeply troubled by riots that had broken out that day in what began as a peaceful march in support of striking sanitation workers. If a march could turn into a riot in Memphis, how could they achieve a peaceful planned march in Washington to champion the poor?
Were people losing faith in his non-violent philosophy or was he on a CIA hit list, labelled “a threat to national security”? I think he knew the answer then and that his days were numbered, for the speech he gave at Mason Temple reflected upon the life he had lived.
He recalled an assassination attempt in 1958 while he was signing copies of his first book Stride Toward Freedom. A woman came up to him and asked, “Are you Dr. King?” When he replied that he was, she drove a letter opener deep into his chest, just stopping at his aorta. If he had sneezed, the papers said, he would have died. He told the congregation about a young white girl who wrote to him that she was glad he “didn’t sneeze.” Dr. King then reminisced about all the things he had been able to do and achieve because he didn’t sneeze. Although only 39, he had long believed that he wouldn’t live past forty.
The following is an excerpt from the PBS documentary 1968: The Year that Shaped a Generation, produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting for PBS. It recounts the last days of Dr. Martin Luther King and documents the fall-out from his assassination. It also reveals that some of the youths who started the riot in Memphis, were on the FBI payroll.
Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles (Memphis Civil Rights Leader): There was a group of young guys called the Invaders, some of whom were on the FBI payroll. We didn’t know that at the time. But they were there really to stir up trouble. These young guys had taken the sticks off of the placards and started breaking windows and this started the riot. Once you start it, everyone gets in it. And rather than just isolate the people who were rioting, the police just waded into the crowd, just beating people indiscriminately…just beating them. It was horrible.
Dr. King was a Baptist Minister in Montgomery when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. After her arrest, people rallied to do something to help her because she was deeply involved and respected in her community. One of her friends, E.D. Nixon, bailed her out of jail and then called Dr. King to ask to use the church for a meeting that night to boycott the city’s buses on the Monday. King was only 26 at the time, but was soon drafted into becoming president of the organisation co-ordinating the boycott.
The boycott, which went on for nearly a year, financially crippled the bus line, yet became pivotal for drawing tens of thousands of protesters to rallies that would become the civil rights movement. It also thrust into the limelight a charismatic young leader who was initially uncertain of his role in the community. Dr. King not only showed his people how to work against evil with dignity, pride and self-respect, but also how to embrace hatred and discrimination with love. His “I have a dream” speech became famous and inspiring. Yet at thirty nine, in his last speech the night before his assassination, his message is just as strong and powerful, yet also prophetic.
“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 ‘til 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,” he began, traversed various periods and ended with, “If you will allow me to live a few years into the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.”
“I am happy that God has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding.”
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop… Like anybody, I would like to live a long life… 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. So I’m happy tonight… I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Dr. King unfailingly preached non-violence. Far greater than a Molotov cocktail, he said, was withdrawing economic support from the businesses that treated “God’s children unfairly.” Although they were poor, collectively, they wielded huge economic power, he reminded them. And they had used that power to boycott the buses in Montgomery where Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat.
Listen to the speech in full…
The night Dr. King was assassinated, Robert F Kennedy, then New York’s senator, delivered the news to the people of Indianapolis in the heart of the African-American ghetto. Police warned that they wouldn’t be able to provide protection for him, but he went anyway and delivered one of his most eloquent and heartfelt speeches, remembering the pain of his own brother’s assassination. Robert F. Kennedy was himself assassinated 63 days later.
With such bright lights for peace and hope extinguished in the sixties in the middle of one of the most senseless and futile wars America has sent its people into, and with no hope for world peace in the foreseeable future, we may take some comfort in other words Dr. King spoke the night before he went to the mountaintop:
I know that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.
I thought about these words over lunch and decided that I needed to add something from my own experience, for there have been many times I have been plunged into the dark pit of despair and depression, unable to find a way out. While I floundered around in this darkness, which was like being lost inside a cave, I wondered why I was there and what sort of light I needed to lead me out. It didn’t take that long before I realised that the darkness was the self-hate I had developed as a result of abuse in my early childhood, and that the light I needed to find a way out was to learn to love this little child within me.
If we want to have peace in our world, it seems to me, then we need to love and respect our children from the moment they are conceived and make sure they are nurtured with wisdom and the utmost care to become the stars in the dark world too many adults have created where violence, wars, and rumours of war have dominated my entire life. Collectively then, humanity may find a way to sustainable peace.
What Martin Luther King tried to teach us all was to embrace hate with love and become the shining star we are all meant to be.
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