Fifty Years Ago This Day: Remembering Dr. King

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.

Jamie Rawson
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.

A 3-Minute Speech With A 148-Year Impact

On Thursday November 19, 1863 — 148 years ago this day — in the small, war-battered Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln delivered the renowned “Gettysburg Address.”

The occasion was the dedication of the battlefield cemetery which was to be the final resting place of more than 6,000 casualties from the fierce fighting that took place from July 1 – 3 that year. The Civil War Battle of Gettysburg proved to be the decisive turning point of that great war; Lincoln’s brief speech proved to be a turning point in the development of this great nation.

Lincoln was a man of great personal courage, drive, vision, and oratorical skill, and a savvy-enough politician to know that his speech which extolled not merely the dead, but the sacred cause they died for, had certain political risks. But he delivered the speech because he felt that it was necessary.

In a day and age when orators were valued for the lengths of their speeches, Lincoln’s address was a mere jot; it lasted less than 3 minutes. Some of those present were unimpressed by the speech, and there is a popular tale that claims the speech was scorned by the audience, but there is no evidence that this was so. True, one can find editorials written after that day which criticize the speech, but these were from distinctly anti-Lincoln papers. The vast majority of pieces written about the speech were decidedly positive. The renowned orator Edward Everett who preceded Lincoln that day, said to Lincoln, “I wish I had come as near to capturing the meaning of today in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

The United States survived that war as a stronger nation, and one that was more truly free, though there was and is more work to be done.

In September of 2003 I visited the Lincoln Memorial with a colleague. He took the time to read both the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address which are carved into the stone walls on the memorial. After he had finished he observed: “Maybe if I knew more history, I wouldn’t despair so much for the present.” And I have to think that in times such as these it is more important than ever to look back upon Lincoln, his vision, his courage, and remember that there is reason to be hopeful for our future. Always.

I know you’ve read it and heard many times before, but I think it does bear repeating:

LINCOLN’S GETTYSBURG ADDRESS

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

— Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln’s message remains meaningful even to this very day.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

If I turn my enemy into my friend, have I not slain my enemy?

— Lincoln

FURTHER READING:

More books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other figure in American history except, perhaps, Benjamin Franklin. My own small collection of Lincoln books runs to 17 volumes, some fairly hefty. In 1992, Garry Wills published Lincoln At Gettysburg about Lincoln’s most famous speech. This treatment started something of a trend, and subsequently several historians have published books devoted to just a single one of Lincoln’s speeches or proclamtions. Herewith, my own sampling:

Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills; Simon & Schuster, 1992: ISBN: 0671769561

This is a detailed history of Lincoln’s speech and its impact. Wills includes analysis of the speech from the perspective of 19th Century oratorical standards, and he discusses the effect of Lincoln’s brief and concise style upon later oratorical trends. The other speeches delivered at Gettysburg that day are included in the extensive appendices.

Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, Ronald C. White, Jr.; Simon & Schuster, 2002: ISBN: 0743212983

White examines Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and assesses its unique place among all of Lincoln’s speeches; it was, as Frederick Douglass observed, “more like a sermon than a state paper.” This relatively short book (about 200 pages) is by no means the last word on this important speech, but White provides an interesting and thought provoking contribution to the discussion of Lincoln’s speeches.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End Of Slevery In America, Allen G. Guelzo; Simon & Schuster, 2004: ISBN: 0743221826

Guelzo received the Lincoln Prize for his 2000 biography of Lincoln. This work, despite its rather glib subtitle, is by no means so simple as to assume that Lincoln’s proclamation actully itself ended slavery. Indeed, Guelzo looks carefully at the politics which influenced the proclamation, and the results, both political and social, which the proclamation produced.

Lincoln At Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President, Harold Holzer; Simon & Schuster, 2004: ISBN: 0743224663

Because Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union in February 1860 has faded from modern memory, Holzer felt it was time to give a book-length treatment of the speech which Lincoln and his contemporaries identified as the one that gained him his party’s nomination. The speech contains many well-known Lincoln quotations, but its overall importance is given its due in the entertaining and enlightening work. I like Holzer’s emphasis on Lincoln’s political courage in carrying his campaign platform into New York City and the heart of his rival William Seward’s strong home base. (I obviously admire Lincoln’s political courage.)