Today-April 4th-marks a tragic milestone in American History. On this day, 45 years ago, an assassin’s bullet would forever silence the voice, heart and strength of the Civil Rights movement. The reaction from the news that people felt ranged from shock and sadness, to anger and rage. Dr. Martin Luther King knew that the pursuit for freedom and equality would result in his death, just as Mahatma Gandhi, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X knew when they took to the streets fighting for the rights of all. Ironically, he even spoke about this same subject not twenty-four hours earlier at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee:
“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? ... Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't really matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. 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!”
The next day, at 6:01 PM (Central Time Zone), Dr. King faced his destiny when James Earl Ray, an escaped convict from the Missouri State Penitentiary, used a high powered rifle, and fired the shot that traveled from his boarding room to the Lorraine Motel; which in turn, would enter Dr. King’s right cheek, and left a trail of wreckage within his body before the bullet lodged itself in his shoulder. The medical staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital worked deliriously, and at a fevered pace at trying to revive Dr. King. I can only imagine the anguish they felt when their efforts were to no avail, and pronounced his death at 7:05 PM.
The emotional reactions to the notification was a mixture of shock and sadness, of pain and anguish, and of anger and rage. Suffice to say, it shook the nation to its core. Prominent politicians, entertainers and activists went before a hurting public, and asked for calm and prayers for Coretta Scott King and their four children. President Lyndon Johnson immediately ordered the FBI to launch an investigation to find whoever was responsible; prior to that, Robert F. Kennedy spoke before his supporters at a rally in Indianapolis, Indiana, and informed them on what had transpired. The speech he delivered has been ranked among the finest in American History. The God-Father of Soul, James Brown, went on stage in Boston, Massachusetts, and performed to assuage the grief and anger concert goes felt when word broke on the death of Martin Luther King. Both Kennedy’s and Brown’s efforts prevented those cities from being swept up in riots.
The emotions of the Black Community was in the states of uncontrollable grief, and uncontainable fury. While Civil Rights Activist, like James Farmer, asked for calm and peace, Stokley Carmichael, a former member of SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and co-creator of the Black Panther Party, strongly voiced the anger and rage that some Black Americans felt over the assassination of Dr. King when he made the following statement:
“White America killed Dr. King last night. She made a whole lot easier for a whole lot of black people today. There no longer needs to be intellectual discussions, black people know that they have to get guns. White America will live to cry that she killed Dr. King last night. It would have been better if she had killed Rap Brown and/or Stokley Carmichael, but when she killed Dr. King, she lost.”
Carmichael’s words hit their marks because in Memphis, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Kansas City, and in Los Angeles, riots broke out due to the fact that Black Americans were going out, and unleashed their fury through rioting. Suffice to say, law enforcement was overwhelmed by their violent reactions, prompting them to seek aid from their respective state’s National Guard.
Over 300,000 people attended Martin Luther King’s funeral in Atlanta, Georgia. Per his request, Precious Lord was sung; and not wanting a long service, a taped version of “The Drum Major Instinct” was played. Eulogizing himself, he made the following statement:
“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 them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. 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 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. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. 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. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say.”
It has been forty-five years since that fateful, and tragic day took place. Although we have come this far together into the 21st Century, we…AS A PEOPLE…have so far to go, and a lot of work that needs to be done before WE…AS A PEOPLE…can cross over into the “Promised Land”.