- …Or Perish Together As Fools
By Ryan Eatmon
On April 4th, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis TN to have dinner with colleagues and discuss the march planned in support of the striking Memphis sanitation workers. Seconds later a single shot was fired and sparked what may go down as the bloodiest and most violent year in American history. King, as early as 1963 had told those close to him that he would die by an assassin’s bullet, and eluded to it less than 24 hours before he was killed, in what’s now known as The Mountaintop Speech.
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. 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!”
Later on during the afternoon of Kings assassination, Senator Robert Kennedy, then running for President, and who himself would be assassinated just two months later gave what was in the opinion of many people, one of the most important speeches of the 20th century. Senator Kennedy had a campaign event that night in the black section of Indianapolis, Indiana. After landing in Indianapolis and being informed of the death of Dr. King, the Indianapolis police chief urged him not to go on with the event as he could not guarantee Kennedy’s safety. He decided to go on with it. In the car, he jotted down a quick draft and broke the news to the crowd at his rally. Many of those in attendance did not know Dr. King was dead, and a few heard but dismissed the report as rumor. In the 4 minutes that Kennedy spoke, you could hear the crowd collectively go from shock, to sadness, to anger and then calm. And when he finished, applause.
“Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black, considering the evidence that there were white people who were responsible, you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization, black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love. For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, and he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times. My favorite poem, my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once 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. So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love, a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.” There were two things about those short remarks that convinced many that this was one of the most important of America’s speeches. First, in the 5 years since it happened, this was the very first time that Robert Kennedy had spoken publicly about the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Most significant is that in the days and weeks after the death of Dr. King, the country exploded with violence. From coast to coast 60 American cities and towns were literally burning. Indianapolis, on that night and every other night during the spring and summer of 1968, was not one of them.
Dr. Kings fight for civil rights wasn’t just limited to the Jim Crow south. It was also about the south side of Chicago, the slums of Harlem, Watts and East L.A. The civil rights movement was about anyone, regardless of race, gender and nationality who wasn’t getting a fair shot. His “Poor Peoples Campaign” aimed to end the injustices to the poor. To strengthen the country not by building up our military, but by building up our schools. To restore American pride not by vilifying those who had it all, but by being a voice for those who had nothing. He stood for the woman who to keep her job, had to be as productive as the man next to her, but only got half of the wages as the man next to her. He fought for sanitation workers working in unacceptable conditions, service workers who felt disrespected and many others. He never once demanded that anyone be given something that they didn’t work for, only that everyone be given the opportunity to work for what they wanted. He didn’t play politics. He was against anyone of any party who he felt wronged the people they were tasked to serve. He had a great deal of respect and admiration for President Lyndon Johnson. He was standing with him when he signed the Civil Rights Act into law. He also very publicly, and without mincing words, told President Johnson exactly what he thought about him sending poor American boys to join with poor South Vietnamese boys to kill poor North Vietnamese boys. He stood with those Republicans who supported his work, and even considered then Vice President Richard Nixon a friend. However, he didn’t hold back in a scathing op-ed he wrote when they nominated Barry Goldwater for President in 1964.
There is no doubt that we are farther along than even he could have imagined. Could he really have imagined that on August 28th 2008, exactly 45 years to the day after he stood before the nation and said, “I have a dream that my four little 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,” that his own son, Martin Luther King III would be standing before the nation, giving a speech on the same stage where 2 hours later a black man accepted his party’s nomination for President of The United States of America? Could he ever have imagined that in less than one lifetime America would, by an overwhelming amount, not only elect a black man but by an equally overwhelming amount re-elect him 4 years later? The progress we made in the last half century cannot and should not be dismissed. However, we can’t celebrate our progress without also acknowledging our failures. The election of Barack Obama, America coming remarkably close to electing its first woman President just 8 years later, and down in Dixieland where the state of Georgia came remarkably close electing an African American woman Governor and Florida just missed out on electing its first African American Governor are remarkable examples of how far we’ve come. Unfortunately, the way they are spoken to and about, and the way they are personally attacked are also glaring reminders of just how far we have to go.
It is one thing to acknowledge a great man and recognize his work. It is quite another to acknowledge a great man and continue his work. Take a day to remember this,and the other fine Americans of his generation who dedicated and eventually gave their lives to do right by ALL of us. And tomorrow, ask yourself: ‘Are we, the children of the children in his dreams, doing right by him?’