Fifty years ago last week, America lost one of its strongest voices for nonviolent resistance, for racial and social justice and equality, and for the power of ideas over the power of physical force.
Last Wednesday marked the fifth decade since the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In one of those strange near-misses of which history is full, Dr. King was scheduled to have been in Wilmington the night he was murdered in Memphis, but he elected to remain in Tennessee to assist with a sanitation worker’s strike. The Williston Middle School Auditorium, unfortunately, will never get to hear his powerful voice.
Williston did hold a memorial service in the auditorium on the night of the anniversary. NC Governor Roy Cooper, who gave the keynote speech at the ceremony, spoke of the need to “keep fighting for a North Carolina that works for everyone—for a North Carolina that Dr. King would be proud to see.” Other political leaders outside of Wilmington commented on the occasion. President Donald Trump tweeted a video which praised Dr. King as a national hero, whose cause “gained strength and force and power with the passage of time.”
Former President Barack Obama, in a video with Rep. John Lewis, said, “If you are speaking on behalf of social justice, then by definition, there’s going to be some controversy. Because if it wasn’t controversial, then somebody would have already fixed it. Dr. King was controversial, but he studied and fought and crafted what he had to say. And he knew when he spoke, he was expressing a truth as well as he could know … Being on the right side of history isn’t always popular.”
Fifty years is a milestone which ought to make us reflect as a nation. In the five decades that have passed, what is the state of Dr. King’s dream in our country today? We can perhaps look for success in the presidency of Barack Obama, in the growing black middle class, and in the greater awareness of social issues by the citizens of our country. However, we can’t overlook the too-numerous shootings of unarmed black men—Danny Ray Thomas in Houston and Stephon Clark in Sacramento, both of which happened at the end of March. We can’t overlook the fact the current White House cabinet is nearly three-quarters white men, or, locally, the case of Vincent Iventosch, the black man run over by three white men in a truck on Racine Drive in February (a recording taken by Iventosch’s fiancée contained suspiciously unfair characterizations of Iventosch’s friends by the officers investigating the case, and so far the driver has not faced criminal charges).
I won’t pretend to be able to speak for the experience of black Americans—or have the answers to these questions. Nor would it be fair for me to ask a few of my black friends, and presume their individual experience somehow represents all people of color in our country. So this week, as a small sort of memorial, I’m passing the mic to the good Reverend Doctor himself, who can explain his own experiences with far more eloquence than I could ever conjure. May his words remind us of his unifying vision, and may their echo inspire us to continue to build a better, fairer world.
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“White America must see that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. That is one thing that other immigrant groups haven’t had to face. The other thing is that the color became a stigma. American society made the Negro’s color a stigma.
“America freed the slaves in 1863, through the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln, but gave the slaves no land, or nothing in reality, as a matter of fact, to get started on. At the same time, America was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest. Which meant that there was a willingness to give the white peasants from Europe an economic base. And yet it refused to give it’s black peasants from Africa—who came here involuntarily, in chains, and had worked free for 244 years—any kind of economic base.
“So emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate, and therefore it was freedom and famine at the same time.
“When white Americans tell the Negro to lift himself by his own bootstraps, they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation. Now I believe we ought to do all we can, and seek to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps, but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. Many Negroes, by the thousands and millions, have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of oppression, and as a result of a society that deliberately made his color a stigma, and something worthless and degrading.”
–NBC interview in Atlanta, Georgia, 1967.
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“The issue is injustice… Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights. And so just as I said, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around. We aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on…
“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. So 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.”
– His final speech in Memphis, TN, April 3, 1968.
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“Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator—that something we call death. We all think about it and every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don’t think about it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself what it is that I would want said and I leave the word to you this morning.
“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy tell him not to talk too long. Every now and then I wonder what I want him to say.
“Tell him not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell not to mention that have 300 or 400 other awards—that’s not important. Tell him not to mention where I went to school.
“I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.
“I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe the naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
“Yes, if you want to, say that I was a drum major. Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.
“And all of the other shallow things will not matter.
“I won’t have any money to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that is all I want to say. If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a well song, if I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain.”
—A recording of his words played by his request at his funeral