It was on this day in 1968, now fifty years ago, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot to death on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The killing touched off a wave of urban violence on a scale and of a scope far exceeding anything like it before. The nation reeled under the twin shocks of assassination and widespread rioting.
Those of us over a certain age will remember the day: it stands out as one of a trio of assassinations which seemed to define the 1960s, the first being John F. Kennedy four-and-a-half years before, and the third being Robert F. Kennedy just two months later. It was late afternoon on that warm Thursday in Southern California where I then lived. My brother Rob and I had been to an after-school birthday party for a friend a few houses from our own. My older brother Chris had walked over to take us home. When we came to the door, Chris informed us that “Martin Luther King had been shot.”
I doubt that then, at the age of nine, I had a very full understanding of what Dr. King had accomplished, yet he had been a major figure throughout my conscious life up to that day. When I was quite young, my family had lived in Montgomery, Alabama at a time when that city was still grappling with the revolutionary impact of the Bus Boycott of a few years before; Dr. King was, of course, a prominent figure in that struggle. We had lived outside Washington, D.C. when Dr. King had delivered his famous “I have a Dream” speech in August of 1963. My mother felt we should watch the television news reports when Birmingham, Alabama Police Chief Bull Connor ordered police and firemen to set dogs on peaceful demonstrators, and to turn fire hoses on the women and small children. We watched on TV as Dr. King and his followers marched peacefully from Selma to Montgomery only to be met with violence. Dr. King was a figure nearly as familiar as President Johnson – and to a nine year old, he was infinitely more dramatic and interesting.
What a shock, then, to hear he had been shot. It was so unreal. And when we returned home to watch the news, we watched more trauma unfold as city after city erupted in violence in reaction to the devastating news. Dr. King would never have approved of the violence and destruction of course. It was horrific in the extreme to hear that in Washington, D.C., firemen had been shot at as they responded to the emergency. It was frightening to see the skyline of Washington with the glow of fires illuminating it. Who could approve of senseless destruction, but especially in light of the character of Dr. King? Yet one also understood that the feeling of rage was too overwhelming to be contained. Dr. King’s program of non-violent action had ultimately resulted in a most violent death for himself, with so much of his work unfinished. No, one could not approve of the violence, but one could understand the rage.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a human being, so it is not surprising that in recent years some of his foibles have been brought to light. If he was flawed, however, these were minor flaws, for he remained focussed on his goal, and he remained true to his principles. When he was met with violence, he offered peaceful response. Dr. King never hesitated to speak out, but he continually forebore to strike out. And though he could march 25,000 people from Selma to Montgomery to present their demands to Governor Wallace, he did not use that great crowd to extort or coerce. At a time of uncertainty and unrest, Dr. King strove to effect maximal change with minimal upheaval.
Dr. King was also one of America’s greatest orators, possessed of an entrancing speaking voice, a dramatic delivery style, and a great gift of rhetorical brilliance. Few people can hear a recording of a speech by King and remain unmoved. His, “I Have a Dream” speech surely ranks among the very foremost of American speeches, and it represents a landmark in the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century. In one of the most often quoted passages in any American speech, Dr. King proclaimed:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”
It is clear that Dr. King’s work is not yet completed, even today. But it is also clear that his dream did not die with him. He was just 38 years old when he was killed; shortly before his death he was heard to wonder if he had accomplished anything at all in the previous dozen years: there was still so very much yet to be done. The work which Dr. King undertook remains to this day unfinished, but he did not strive in vain. The world we live in today is one far removed from that of 1955 or even 1968. It is today unthinkable that dogs and fire hoses would be used against peaceful demonstrators. It is unimaginable that a state government would seriously assert its right to disenfranchise and to discriminate against a large portion of its citizens. It seems medieval that a state would deny anyone employment, or legal rights, or even so basic a human institution as marriage, based upon race. Yet in one form or another, issues of these types still face us; the terrible scourge of racism has seen an appalling rebirth in recent years, encouraged in part by pretended “populist” politicians who flagrantly fan old fears to further their ambitions.
The work is not yet done. But it was well begun. And it must be rekindled by those of us today who understand the need.
Dr. King earned a goodly share of the credit for getting this work underway. It seems fitting, that we pause for a moment on this sad anniversary to remember a great leader. And to recall his great work, a work in progress.
Flower Mound, Texas
Oh, the worst of tragedies is not to die young, but to live until I am seventy-five and yet not ever truly to have lived.
— Martin Luther King Jr.