“And then I got to Memphis… I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it 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… But 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… I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Often, when we think of Martin Luther King, Jr., we remember certain things. The “I Have a Dream” speech. The now classic quotation of judging one “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” The now nationally recognized Martin Luther King, Jr., Day every year in January. We often forget – or perhaps, don’t want to be reminded of – another important day in the life of MLK: April 4, 1968.
Most of the civil rights leaders of the early 1960s and ’70s seemed to be prophetic; that definitely held true for Dr. King. While King the man was as fallible as the rest of us – indeed, sometimes we forget that even “leaders” are still human – King as a movement was unstoppable, eloquent, visionary. The problem with bearing a potent, vibrant message in a dark time is that not everyone will agree with it. Some people may see you and what you stand for as a threat to their existence or way of life. Even the very people who you expected to support you, the people who were there in the beginning, thought you were saying too much and hence distanced themselves from you when you may have needed them the most.
“Some of your homies – phonies, I should say, when I see them/Them sleazy bastards, greedy pastors/ Jerks…”
By the time Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3, 1968, some of the support he had had in the beginning, had abandoned him. By then, King’s focus had drifted to other areas than just Black people’s progress in America. Indeed, he spoke out against American involvement in Vietnam – especially of Black American soldiers’ involvement, given that they were being treated as “second-class citizens” here in America yet fighting for democracy abroad. And he sought out unsuccessfully the help of his fellow religious leaders in developing a Poor People’s Campaign because he felt Congress was showing “hostility to the poor.”
The following day, on April 4, 1968, as he stood on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, a shot was fired. A King fell. A movement took one of its biggest losses. A senseless act of violence cut short the life of an international icon.
“I ain’t even know the strength you had to have to march…”
It’s a testament to one’s legacy and impact when people still say your name and wish for your presence nearly half a century after your death. Many Black people often wonder what things would be like if King were still around, or if he had lived just a little longer. It’s so easy for us in contemporary times, the heirs of many of the things King fought for, to dismiss or discredit or reduce King’s legacy to quotes and “passivity” compared to his peers. Had we lived through it, marched with him, heard him speak in person instead of in audio recordings… we would see him differently.
If, as Martin used to say, “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy”… what scale is possibly big enough to weigh the measure of someone who meant so much to so many? I hope today, we all take even just a moment to remember a King.
“‘Cause when it rains, it pours/ I need Rihanna’s umbrella, to catch Coretta’s tear drops/ When she got the phone call that the future just took a fuckin’ headshot…”
*credit to MichaelYoungHistory for providing this song for the post*