Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. He had traveled down there to fight for better conditions and wages for sanitation workers (people who work on garbage trucks) in that city. He was mourned and lionized after his death, becoming more and more popular in the years that followed. President Reagan signed a bill that made Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday in 1983 (it would not be celebrated by all 50 states until 2000*). What many people don’t know is that he was quite unpopular for the last year of his life. This piece is about that final year and how his teachings are incredibly relevant today (his words appear in black bold throughout this article).
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on program’s of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
These are the most well known lines from his April 4, 1967 speech at Riverside Church in NYC where he came out very strongly against the war in Vietnam. With this speech, he alienated President Johnson, turned off much of the black middle class, lost a number of his civil rights allies and was lambasted by the media. This did not surprise him – his advisers told him it would happen. Dr. King wrestled with whether or not he should speak out – he had won a Nobel Prize, had worked with the President on major civil rights legislation and had the respect and goodwill of a large number of Americans. After an internal debate, Dr. King decided to give the speech because he felt obligated to lead people in a direction that he felt was morally right, even if it came at great personal and professional cost.
When one sits down and comprehends Dr. King’s work and travel schedule, it is only then that one can see how authentic, passionate and tireless he was. Make no mistake, for the last several years of his life (and especially his last year), the man was exhausted. He would visit with regular people, meet with officials and speak in front of groups all in the same day, and he traveled to several different cities and states most weeks (but he tried to be in Atlanta for his Sunday sermon as much as he could). Dr. King did all of this without keeping any donated money (Coretta unsuccessfully lobbied him to set aside some to help with the bills and provide for the children’s education).
Dr. King traveled to cities like Chicago and Newark, where he spoke and marched and organized for improved housing conditions for the underprivileged, equal education, and better employment conditions while fighting against and raising the awareness about racial profiling and police brutality. This was in the 1960’s. It’s mindnumbing to reflect on those issues in Chicago and Newark in 2016.
There is a very dangerous development in the nation now to equate dissent with disloyalty.
Dr. King uttered these words about Muhammad Ali. In late April of 1967, Ali rejected induction into the US Army saying that “ain’t no Vietcong every called me nigger.” He was stripped of his titles, banned from boxing and sentenced to prison. Ali was able to avoid prison but he was held out of the ring for 3 1/2 prime years of his career. Some people called Ali a traitor. This deeply disturbed Dr. King. Criticism and dissent are quintessential American traits and rights. When people label their opponents as disloyal, they seek to silence other citizens, limit opinion, and lower the quality of public discourse. This has continued (and possibly gotten worse in the last 50 years), and it is behavior that both Republicans and Democrats currently engage in.
…less than 1 percent of the Negroes of our country have engaged in riots. More than 99 percent of the Negroes have remained nonviolent tactically.
He spoke these words on Meet the Press in response to the question about whether civil disobedience inevitably leads to civil disorder. Today, these words can be applied to Americans that are currently being unfairly demonized for the actions of an ultra-tiny percentage: latinos, latinas and Muslims.
Don, you’ll never know how easy you and Jackie and Campy made it for me to do my job by what you did on the baseball field.
Dr. King said this to Don Newcombe, a pitcher for the Dodgers and one of the first black players to play in the majors. Mr. Newcombe was stunned by those words and told Dr. King that he just played baseball and wasn’t the one that had dogs sicced on him, was beaten or thrown in jail. Dr. King responded by telling him that the baseball players led and he followed. This is particularly inspirational for me, because no matter the heights Dr. King attained, he acknowledged the legacy of others that came before him and paid them great homage.
Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize – that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards – that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to mention that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I want you to be able to say that I tried to be right on the war question…say that I did try to feed the hungry. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.
This was part of Dr. King’s sermon to his Atlanta congregation on February 4, 1968. He was speaking about his eventual death and how he wanted to be remembered.Two months later, he would be killed at the age of 39. Today, I am a few months older than Dr. King was at the time of his murder. He has been, is and will continue to be one of the great role models of my life. I believe it to be a very worthy goal “to leave a committed life behind.”
* Arizona and South Carolina were among the last states to acknowledge it as a holiday. To this day, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi call the day Dr. Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day.
One additional note: I’ve read a number of books and articles on Dr. King, but this piece owes a heavy debt to Tavis Smiley’s Death of a King, which is about the last year of Dr. King’s life and was published in 2014.