As is the case on every April 4, our hearts are filled with sorrow as we recall the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on this date in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. No amount of time will undo the deep sense of loss we still feel over the preacher from Atlanta whose message of “agape love” changed this nation. It seems just like yesterday when many of us, as children, were watching the evening news (with much of the nation tuned to the CBS Evening News broadcast in the clip below) when word was first given that Dr. King had been killed as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
No matter how much time has passed, that night is frozen in time, with the image of the young warrior laid prone on the balcony floor, life slipping away as he aides looked upon in horror. It was the first time many of us saw our fathers shed tears, our mothers unable to hide broken hearts. It was a night when few words were spoken in households but many prayers lifted up, for the soul of our fallen leader and that of our nation. Many of us heard, that night for the first time, Dr. King’s eerily prophetic speech delivered the night before when he essentially let us know his time on this earth was coming to a close. For many children it was the night they grew up; the innocence of childhood lost as the ugliness of the world became evident. Just weeks later, we would be haunted by the killing of Senator Robert Kennedy. Our country would never be the same.
We have come to embrace January 15 as a way to honor the life of Dr. King and use the national holiday as an opportunity to acknowledge his contributions to our nation. Still, we should not let April 4 pass by without recognizing the date’s profound effect on the course of history. Had that assassin’s bullet not hit its target our nation might be much farther down the path toward real racial reconciliation and economic justice. Photographs of the muddy tent city of the Poor People’s Campaign in the aftermath of Dr. King’s death is a constant reminder of just how much was lost when we lost Martin Luther King, Jr.
Though he was facing innumerable challenges in the final months of his life, Dr. King was also laying the groundwork for a visionary re-ordering of the nation’s priorities that included the poor and people of color, government and the private sector. It must also be noted, that long before “personal responsibility” became a buzzword for conservative pundits and politicians, Dr. King referenced the need for each of us to take account of our own actions. He also spoke out against a senseless war and drew critics from all corners. Had we followed his script more closely, chances are that we might have avoided many of the pitfalls we have encountered since his death.
Time has a way of always being in your face. It is a constant reminder of its limits and brevity, and a warning not to take it for granted lest we lose it. No doubt, many of us wish we could go back and freeze those fateful seconds before Dr. King stepped out of Room 306 and onto the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. There is no way of knowing what his continued leadership would have produced but judging from his past, there is no doubt Dr. King would have been a force on the world stage. We often forget that he was just 39 at the time of his death. To put his age in perspective, he would have just been 59 when one of his lieutenants, Rev. Jesse Jackson, made his groundbreaking run for the presidency. Even forty-one years later, we feel cheated by the cowardice and hate of an assassin.
We hope, in your own way, you will take a moment today to quietly remember the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and reflect on how you can use your life to build the “beloved community” of which this Prince of Peace dreamed.