A Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 50th Anniversary of his Death
By Dr. G. Steve Kinnard
Let Justice Roll, A Social Justice Blog. Volume Three.
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
—Amos 5:24, NRSV
Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
50 years ago today, James Earl Ray assassinated Dr. King as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.
On that day, I was a boy of ten living about 175 miles east of Memphis in a small town called Columbia. I was in the fifth grade. I went to a public school, but it was an all-white public school. I didn’t experience integration until Middle School. I went to an all-white church. I did not have any black friends.
The only black person I knew was Herman. He worked for my dad at my dad’s shoe repair shoe. Herman was deaf and dumb. He had lost his hearing as child, and because of his loss of hearing, he never learned to speak. He also couldn’t read or write. My dad communicated with Herman by using a form of sign language that he and Herman developed over the years. I have fond memories of Herman. He was a gentle soul.
Except for Herman, I grew up in a lily-white world.
I knew who Dr. King was. Everyone did. But I didn’t know what he was doing in Memphis fifty years ago today, and I didn’t understand the importance of his life and ministry. I wouldn’t understand that until years later.
I don’t remember much about the day Dr. King was murdered. I remember hearing the news of his death. I remember some of my circle of family and friends reacting to the news with enthusiasm. I feel tremendous shame as I type those words, but it’s the truth. Some of my family and friends were glad that Dr. King was dead.
I remember other family members and friends showing little or no reaction. I don’t remember anyone grieving his death. I don’t remember anyone shedding a single tear.
Personally, I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t know enough about Dr. King to understand that a great leader and a great man had been killed. I feel sad about that.
The news of the death of Dr. King was received very differently by my family and friends from the news of the death of President John F. Kennedy. I remember how sad everyone was when JFK was assassinated. I remember them crying. I remember them sobbing.
Personally, I remember feeling sad. I remember trying to comfort my mother who adored JFK. I remember watching on television the procession of his casket down the middle of the road in Washington and the streets lined with people to see his casket. I remember Jacqueline dressed in black and walking behind the casket. I remember her face being hidden behind a dark veil.
I have vivid memories of the death of JFK. I don’t have those memories of the death of MLK. Again, I feel sad about that.
It wasn’t until many years later that I learned of the greatness of Dr. King. I read his book of sermons, Strength to Love, and those sermons moved my heart. Then I read Stride toward Freedom and I learned of his non-violent protests. Then I listened over and over to his great speeches and was inspired by them.
On April 4th, 1968 our country lost a great leader, a prophet, and a visionary. The day before he was murdered, he gave his last sermon, his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in the Mason Temple in Memphis. I encourage you to read or listen to the speech to honor the legacy of Dr. King. You can find an annotated version of the speech here:
Every time I read the speech, I’m always amazed at the prophetic tone of the final paragraph. I’ll close this article of tribute to Dr. King with his own final words from his final speech. Dr. King preached,
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it 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 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.”