The Death of Dr. Martin Luther King

On April 4, 1968 – forty-eight years ago yesterday – at 6:01 pm, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as he stood on the second floor balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Four days later,  Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) introduced legislation to establish a national holiday to honor Dr. King. That legislation was eventually signed into law on November 2, 1983; fifteen years after Dr. King’s death.

On the occasion of the bill signing, President Ronald Regan declared:

…our nation has decided to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by setting aside a day each year to remember him and the just cause he stood for. We’ve made historic strides since Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. As a democratic people, we can take pride in the knowledge that we Americans recognized a grave injustice and took action to correct it. And we should remember that in far too many countries, people like Dr. King never have the opportunity to speak out at all. 

But traces of bigotry still mar America. So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. And I just have to believe that all of us—if all of us, young and old, Republicans and Democrats, do all we can to live up to those Commandments, then we will see the day when Dr. King’s dream comes true.

Perhaps, in the optimistic spirit of Dr. King, it is right that we remember his legacy on the day of his birth. Yet this observance is cruel in kindness, somehow – a soft celebration of our darker days.

As a democratic people, we can take pride in the knowledge that we Americans recognized a grave injustice and took action to correct it. 

Took too little action, I’m afraid.

We made progress, no doubt, but far too little compared to the difficult work still ahead of us. The legacy of our history, the deeds of our ancestors, are not so easily wiped out. It’s shameful to pretend otherwise.

Yet once a year, we blithely celebrate our victory; we take pride in our justice and imagine that we, if given the opportunity, would have been on the right side of history. Such tragedies would never happen in our America.

And little do we note the day of Dr. King’s passing; the day white violence took him from our world.

It’s an easy choice in some ways; far better to recognize a day of hope, to celebrate our better selves. But the murder of Dr. King is our legacy, too; a painful reality which is easier to ignore.

So perhaps we would do well to remember the speech Dr. King gave the day before his assassination.

Dr. King declared that he was happy to have lived “just a few years” in the current time. It was a dark and dangerous time, but he was happy because:

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.”

Dr. King knew that there were threats against him. He knew that the FBI had invested him and urged him to commit suicide. He knew that there were many who would act to see him dead. But, he declared:

…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.

He was murdered the next day.

And his legacy lives on.

But his true legacy is not a reflection of the injustice behind us, but rather a reminder of the work still ahead of us. He had gone up the mountain; he had seen the promised land.

We have a long journey remaining, and there is much work to be done.

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