Fifty years ago this week (April 4), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by an assassin’s bullet while standing at the second-floor balconey of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., to address striking African American city sanitation workers.
Dr. King’s body was returned to his hometown of Atlanta, Ga., where his funeral ceremony was attended by high-level leaders of all races and political stripes.
The 39-year-old King did more to advance the cause of African-American rights in 13 years than had been done in centuries. His accomplishments are well known, including work to help pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that mandated equal application of voter registration requirements and prohibited racial segregation in employment, schools and public accommodations.
What gets less attention in the secular world is that King’s civil rights activism was inspired by his Christian convictions.
“Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling and it remains my greatest commitment,” King said. “Everything I do in civil rights, I do because I consider it part of my ministry.”
He was motivated by Biblical examples of Jesus’ selfless love and his instruction that we love others as we love ourselves. King wanted love and truth to prevail over the evils of racism and violence.
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the south with.
“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discord of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
“With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free on day.
“And this will be the day —this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My Country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring…
“...And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
King wanted America to live up to its principles of individual freedom and dignity.
He called the “magnificent words” of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence a “promissory note” to all Americans that they were guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He wanted to end the suffering of people faced with roadblocks that did not allow them to fully exercise their rights.
King’s strategy of nonviolent protests and statesmanship changed America forever.
His I Have a Dream speech in 1963 was delivered to 250,000 people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., but it has since been studied by millions. That speech and King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail are among the most revered orations and writings in the English language.
Because of King’s profound impact on American culture, he is the only non-president to have a national holiday dedicated in his honor and the only non-president memorialized on the Great Mall in the nation’s capital.
There are thousands of statues, parks, public facilities, streets and buildings around the world depicting his image or his words.
In 1964, at age 35, King became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. When accepting the award in Oslo, Norway, he said: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”
Perhaps the most widely used line of King’s Dream speech is: “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.”
One can only think that King would harshly judge the corruption of our government today. He knew that integrity and ethical conduct were the underpinnings of society.
If King could see the “any ends justifies the means” behavior of activists today, I’m sure he would be in distress based on this admonition to his followers in 1963:
“I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”
He wrote those words while serving a 10-day jail term in Birmingham. Ala., for violating a court injunction against any “Parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.”
Kings consistent message to dissenters and supporters alike, as written in Dream, was that the “whirlwinds of revolt” would continue until Black Americans were granted their full rights and society became more just.
He said the end goal could not be reached unless Americans put aside negative emotions and united to support change. Here is his extortation from Dream:
“But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.
“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again, and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
“The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidence by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied to our destiny. And they have come to realizes that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone…”
With King’s death, the world lost a noble human being and reformer
He was not a perfect man, he didn’t need to be, he only needed to follow God’s promptings and put himself on the front lines of a social justice battle that will never end.
In a time of a deepening political divides and heightened racial tensions, Americans would do well to reflect on King’s words and to incorporate them into activism and treatment of others.