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This Week in History March 30 - April 5, 1968

The Assassination of Martin Luther King,
April 4, 1968

March 2014

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid...You refuse to do it because you want to live longer...You're afraid because you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized and will lose your popularity, or you're afraid that somebody will stab you, or shoot at you, or bomb your house, so you refuse to take that stand.. Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you will be just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right. You died when you refused to stand up for truth. You died when you refused to stand up for justice."

--Martin Luther King, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, November 1967

One year to the day of his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King gave a speech at New York City's Riverside Church, in the which he announced his moral rejection of the Vietnam War. At that moment, on April 4, 1967, King stepped away from being a spokesman and catalyst for the American civil rights movement, and assumed moral responsibility for the global and foreign policy actions of the United States Presidency. He faced the most intense firestorm of criticism that he had ever encountered in his life. In a July 5, 2013 interview/dialogue with Rep. John Lewis, a co-founder in 1960 of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the last living speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, journalist Amy Goodman pointed out:

"At the time, Time magazine called (King's) speech 'demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.' That’s the Dr. King 1967 speech against the war in Vietnam. The Washington Post declared King had, quote, 'diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.' " Rep. John Lewis' response was:

"I think it’s so unfortunate that publications like Time magazine, Washington Post— if they had to rewrite those articles today, it would be a different story. Dr. King was right. He was right—and so many others, politicians, who came out against the war, whether it was Eugene McCarthy or others, later Bobby Kennedy. What that war helped to destroy: the hopes, the dreams and aspirations of so many people."

While John Lewis gives deservedly high praise to King's Riverside Church speech, King's speech of April 3, 1968, is unique in the annals of American and world history. It is argued among Christian theologians that Jesus Christ's acceptance, in the garden of Gethsemane, of the cost of his redemptive mission for mankind--that he will be crucified--is a non-repeatable act. The "imitation of Christ"--speaking truth to power, even at the risk of one's life--is, however, a re-enactment of the principle of Gethsemane, a "bearing immortal witness" to its truth. The four New Testament evangelists recount that Jesus Christ's acceptance of the bitter cup of Gethsemane is immediately followed by his crucifixion at noon the next day. King's self-conscious acceptance of the "cost of discipleship" will be succeeded by his death less than twenty-four hours later, at 6:01 on April 4. King used prophetic prescience. He decided to confront his closest associates, and his supporters, in the form of a gathering at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, with the true nature of their own immortality. Many often quote the stirring end of the speech, but the beginning metaphor of the speech makes it extremely clear that the entirety is a thorough-composed unit idea. While indeed extemporaneous, it is composed, from its first sentence to the last, on  one, and only one subject: immortality.  It is, indeed Martin Luther King's "Gethsemane" speech.

King, wasting no time,  first reproduces, visually and verbally, the arc and sweep of historical space-time in the which his remarks, the sanitation workers' cause, and King's last night on earth would be actually located:

"Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there.

I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would even go by the way that the man for whom I am named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg. But I wouldn't stop there.......

......Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy."

Near the conclusion of the speech,  King also reflected on his near-assassination as a result of a stabbing in New York City in 1958:

"It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I've forgotten what those telegrams said. I'd received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I've forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I'll never forget it. It said simply,

Dear Dr. King,

I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School."

And she said,

While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I'm a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I'm simply writing you to say that I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze.

And I want to say tonight -- I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn't sneeze."

After recounting all the things that he had managed to initiate, be part of and accomplish---Birmingham, the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act, the Nobel Peace Prize, Selma, the Voting Rights Act, the opposition to the war in Vietnam--"because I didn't sneeze", King insists, "it really doesn't matter now, because I've been to the mountaintop", referring to the prophet Moses, who did not enter the Promised Land after guiding the Hebrews through the desert for forty years, but climbed to the top of Mount Nebo and was allowed by God to see it. King spoke of how he had seen the future, was located in the future, and was immortal in that sense. King spoke not from a premonition of death; he spoke from his acceptance of the cost of discipleship.

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But 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!"