1968 was a most awful, horrible, tragic year that left its events forever seared in my memories. I can still recall those events as if they occurred only yesterday. The sense of shock, loss and grief are revived and felt anew on days like today.
On April 3, 1968, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his last speech in Memphis, Tennessee, his now famous I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech, in which Dr. King recalled a previous assassination attempt on his life that almost took his life, and the current threats to his life for coming to Memphis in support of a sanitation workers strike. His closing remarks proved to be prophetic:
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!!
At 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated on the steps of his motel room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The “breaking news” reports of his assassination on the network television news resulted in angry riots breaking out in American cities across the country.
In Indianapolis, Indiana, where Senator Robert F. Kennedy was campaigning for president, he broke the news to the stunned crowd. Robert Kennedy Announcing the Assasination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Kennedy’s expression of heartfelt grief and call for restraint prevented a violent response in Indianapolis that night. He himself would be assassinated only two months later.
On April 9, 1968, the nation mourned at the funeral of Dr. King. Benjamin Mays, the president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, delivered a stirring eulogy on the life of his friend. In his closing remarks, Mays said:
If we love Martin Luther King Jr. and respect him, as this crowd surely testifies, let us see to it that he did not die in vain; let us see to it that we do not dishonor his name by trying to solve our problems through rioting in the streets. Violence was foreign to his nature. He warned that continued riots could produce a Fascist state. But let us see to it also that the conditions that cause riots are promptly removed, as the President of the United States is trying to get us to do. Let black and white alike search their hearts; and if there be prejudice in our hearts against any racial or ethnic group, let us exterminate it and let us pray, as Martin Luther King Jr. would pray if he could: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. If we do this, Martin Luther King Jr. will have died a redemptive death from which all mankind will benefit.
I close by saying to you what Martin Luther King Jr. believed: If physical death was the price he had to pay to rid America of prejudice and injustice, nothing could be more redemptive. And to paraphrase the words of the immortal John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr.’s unfinished work on earth must truly be our own.
The National Civil Rights Museum is hosting MLK50 events today in a day of remembrance:
There will be:
10:00 AM Daylong Tributes from the MLK50 Main Stage in the Museum Courtyard – Musical, dance and spoken word performances and reflections from civil rights leaders in salute to Dr. King. Free to the public.
3:30 PM The 6:01 50th Anniversary Ceremony from the Balcony of the Lorraine Motel – The Beloved Community will gather for the official ceremony with the laying of the wreath, ecumenical liturgy, musical and spoken word tributes, and remarks from civil rights icons. Free to the public.
6:01 PM Bell Toll – Bells ring at places of worship, college campuses or institutions 39 times across the nation to honor the number of years Dr. King dwelled on this earth and to pay homage to his legacy. To register your institution to participate in the nationwide bell toll, click below.
6:15 PM Evening of Storytelling – Civil Rights Icons and New Movement Makers in dialogue about “the Movement” then and now. This is a ticketed event at Crosstown Concourse. This event is now SOLD OUT.
Host Live Streaming Watch Party on April 4 – By hosting live streaming at your place of assembly, we can make it possible for others who cannot physically be at the National Civil Rights Museum to experience this historic moment virtually. Click to complete the participation form, and we will contact you with live streaming information to watch at your venue with the best vantage point of onstage program and audience perspective.
The television and cable networks are also airing specials today in commemoration of this anniversary. Check your television listings.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson, who was with Dr. King on that fateful day, writes at the New York Times, Jesse Jackson: How Dr. King Lived Is Why He Died:
As the nation prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we should dwell not merely on how Dr. King died but also on how he lived.
He mobilized mass action to win a public accommodations bill and the right to vote. He led the Montgomery bus boycott and navigated police terror in Birmingham. He got us over the bloodstained bridge in Selma and survived the rocks and bottles and hatred in Chicago. He globalized our struggle to end the war in Vietnam.
How he lived is why he died.
As he sought to move beyond desegregation and the right to vote, to focus his work on economic justice, antimilitarism and human rights, the system pushed back hard. In the last months of his life, he was attacked by the government, the press, former allies and the military industrial complex. Even black Democrats turned their backs on him when he challenged the party’s support for the war in Vietnam.
A growing number of Americans had a negative view of Dr. King in the final years of his life, according to public opinion polls. A man of peace, he died violently. A man of love, he died hated by many.
America loathes marchers but loves martyrs. The bullet in Memphis made Dr. King a martyr for the ages.
We owe it to Dr. King — and to our children and grandchildren — to commemorate the man in full: a radical, ecumenical, antiwar, pro-immigrant and scholarly champion of the poor who spent much more time marching and going to jail for liberation and justice than he ever spent dreaming about it.
This is a painful time of the year for me because it is when I am asked to remember the most traumatic night in my life.
We had come to Memphis in 1968 to support striking sanitation workers in their fight for better wages and safer working conditions. On the evening of April 4, Dr. King was going to take a group of us, including the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Andy Young, Hosea Williams and Bernard Lee, to dinner at the home of the Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles, not far from where we were staying, the Lorraine Motel.
As we prepared to go, Dr. King cheerfully admonished me, the youngest of the group, for not being suitably dressed for the evening. I wasn’t wearing a tie. “Doc, the only prerequisite for dinner,” I joked back, “is an appetite, not a tie.”
We laughed. Dr. King loved to laugh.
After dinner we were going to attend a rally for the sanitation workers. I had brought the Operation Breadbasket Orchestra from Chicago to play at the rally. Dr. King, always the hottest ticket in any town, was scheduled to speak. He’d be hard pressed, though, to top the speech he gave the night before at the Mason Temple in Memphis, where he pledged that “we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
It was raining cats and dogs, but the Mason Temple, part of the Church of God in Christ, was nearly full. I was sitting behind Dr. King as he preached from the pulpit. He spoke with such pathos and passion that I saw grown men wiping away tears in the sanctuary. “I’m not worried about anything,” Dr. King told the crowd of about 3,000. “I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
None of us took those words as a premonition. We had heard similar sentiments from him before. Maybe we were in denial. While danger was all around, we never thought the Martin Luther King we knew and loved, admitted to Morehouse College at 15, graduated and ordained at 19, earning a Ph.D. at 26, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at 35, would be dead at 39.
On April 4, the fatal shot rang out just after 6 p.m. as we were about to get into the cars to go to dinner. Dr. King was on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. I was in the parking lot below.
A couple of hours later, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Dr. King’s successor, gathered us at the Lorraine. By then much of urban America had already moved from shock and sorrow to rage and flames. We had a choice: Surrender to our own anguish and anger, or honor the slain prince of peace by picking up the baton of nonviolent direct action.
With deep breaths, the baton firmly in our hands, we went to Resurrection City, the tent city erected by Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, and continued the work of ending poverty and the war. As the Rev. Joseph Lowery said, we would not let one bullet kill the movement.
Dr. King’s spirit has been our moral guidepost for 50 years. That spirit is alive today with the high school students of Parkland, Fla., as they push the country toward sensible gun control. It is alive with the teachers of West Virginia, who have blazed a trail for other workers. It is alive with Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers, Colin Kaepernick and thousands of African-American voters who defied the pundits and sent an Alabama Democrat to the Senate for the first time in a generation. It is alive with the Rev. William Barber as he resurrects Dr. King’s last crusade, the Poor People’s Campaign.
Dr. King bequeathed African-Americans the will to resist and the right to vote. Yet while we were marching and winning, the powers of reaction were regrouping, preparing a counterrevolution. Five decades ago, a segregationist governor, George Wallace, peddled hate and division in reaction to the civil rights movement. Today, it is the president himself who is inciting anguish, bigotry and fear.
We are in a battle for the soul of America, and it’s not enough to admire Dr. King. To admire him is to reduce him to a mere celebrity. It requires no commitment, no action. Those who value justice and equality must have the will and courage to follow him. They must be ready to sacrifice.
The struggle continues.
Let us rededicate ourselves today to the causes of peace, racial equality, and social and economic justice. Dr. King’s legacy must live on in the heart and spirit of each of us. As Rev. Jackson reminds us, “the struggle conrinues.” God will judge us by how we rise to meet the moral challenges of our time.
UPDATE: When he was assassinated 50 years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was working on the Poor People’s Campaign to unite poor people of diverse backgrounds to demand better homes, jobs and education. A reborn Poor People’s Campaign aims to carry out Martin Luther King’s vision:
Now, civil rights leaders are reviving the Poor People’s Campaign with 40 days of marches, sit-ins and other peaceful protests. Organizers of the rekindled campaign discussed their plans Tuesday in Memphis on the eve of the anniversary of King’s death.
“This first 40 days is not the end; it’s the launch,” said the Rev. William Barber of North Carolina, one of the co-chairs of the revived campaign. “You will see simultaneous moral direct action. You will see simultaneous training of people to prepare for a season of massive voter mobilization.”
Starting May 14, clergy, union members and other activists will take part in the events in about 30 states, targeting Congress and state legislatures. Then, on June 23, organizers plan a large rally in Washington – similar to what King had envisioned. The original Poor People’s Campaign was carried out in 1968 after King’s death by other civil rights leaders.
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Aside from mobilizing voters, Barber said the revived campaign will call attention to poverty, racism and environmental issues. Organizers plan to release a study later this month on poverty in America over the past five decades. King had envisioned the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington as a way to speak out against economic injustice, as he shifted his focus from civil rights to human rights.