45 years ago Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was cut down by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee. Today his message is just as relevant in 2013 as it was for a deeply divided American society in 1968
Forty-five years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King was taken from us, cut down by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
He was preparing to leave for dinner with his aides to strategize on carrying out a peace march for striking sanitation workers.
Dr. King had returned to Memphis to march in solidarity with the city’s sanitation workers, who were striking for a living wage and safer work conditions after two workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck on February 1, 1968 . The 1,300 sanitation workers were black men, who were attempting to organize for labor union wages and benefits. Thousands of white students joined in support of the workers. A march to City Hall ensued,but police attacked the workers and the students. King arrived in Memphis and attempted to march, but violence erupted and the march was called off. But he returned in solidarity with the workers to attempt to march again.
On April 3rd, the evening before he was murdered, Dr. King met with the sanitation workers and arguably, delivered one of the most reflective and meaningful speeches of his incredible life that is known as “I Have Been to the Mountaintop.”
Seminal excerpts of the speech:
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.
I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn’t stop there…
I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating President by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” But I wouldn’t stop there.
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.”
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.”
I was 13-years-old when King was murdered and I knew immediately how tragic the consequences were for America and especially for the African-American community.
On that terrible day, Robert Kennedy was campaigning for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. He was scheduled to speak in an Indianapolis black neighborhood (my hometown). Police told him not to go because they could not guarantee his safety. He went anyway.
He too, delivered one of his greatest speeches of his life that evening. And his words uttered to a shocked audience of mostly black Americans permanently encircle his grave at Arlington National Cemetery:
Aeschylus…wrote, “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’ What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness; but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
Just two months later, Robert Kennedy too, would be cut down by an assassin’s bullet after winning the California Democratic primary. It was a terrible time in our country.
In the immediate aftermath of King’s murder, Coretta Scott King, along with Ralph Abernathy, although grief stricken, went back to Memphis and led the sanitation workers in a silent march for justice.
That is the challenge before all of us. Despite suffering; despite tragedy; despite discrimination; despite injustice, Martin Luther King taught us that we must continue our march to justice and to freedom. There is always suffering in the world, which we are compelled to confront nonviolently; but we will not allow these challenges obstruct our march or quench our thirst to be free.
Images of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Lorraine Motel are courtesy of Wikipedia.
Tanya L. Domi is the Deputy Editor of the New Civil Rights Movement. She is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and teaches human rights in East Central Europe and former Yugoslavia. Prior to teaching at Columbia, Domi was a nationally recognized LGBT civil rights activist who worked for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force during the campaign to lift the military ban in the early 1990s. Domi has also worked internationally in a dozen countries on issues related to democratic transitional development, including political and media development, human rights and gender issues. She is chair of the board of directors for GetEQUAL. Domi is currently writing a book about the emerging LGBT human rights movement in the Western Balkans.
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