April 4th, 1968, approximately 6 PM, fifty years ago today; I was six years old. On the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN, just down from his room #306 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is bending over the railing discussing dinner plans with Jesse Jackson and others, unaware they would never make it. In a boarding house across from the motel a prison escapee, a man who represented everything wrong with the generation of hate, stood in a bathtub using the bathroom window ledge to rest his Remington .30-06 rifle, and took his one shot at infamy. The round struck Dr. King in his right cheek, traveled through his vertebrae and spinal cord, severing King’s jugular and a major artery. The man who just one night before predicted his own death, now lay motionless in a pool of his own blood in prophetic manifestation. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was pronounced deceased at 7:05 PM.
James Earl Ray may be the lone man behind the trigger that ended Dr. King’s earthly life, but King’s blood was on the hands of an entire community of white bigots that led to the highest offices in the land. Dr. King’s legacy is that of a Civil Rights leader, a man who won the Nobel Peace Prize at the relative young age of just 34 years old. He was in Memphis organnizing a peaceful protest in support of fair wages for sanitation workers. Dr. King acknowledged that obtaining a seat at the lunch counter was easy compared to the guarantee of a fair annual income. He was the voice for the common black wage earner who simply wanted an equal opportunity at the American dream of propserity that was afforded to all others. In his “I Have a Dream” Speech Dr. King references the notion of all men being created equally with unalienable rights guaranteed by their creator. He went on to say that Black Americans instead had received a bad check marked Insufficient Funds. Dr. King fought for nothing more than for all Americans to receive fair and equal treatment and opportunity. However many, including politicians, attempted to drown out his voice. The likes of Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, an outspoken KKK leader, the segregation verbiage and policies of Democratic Governor George Wallace and the hidden agenda of Lyndon Johnson all worked in unison to assure that the right white of traditional American society would continue on, keeping black Americans “in their place”. Martin Luther King Jr. knew exactly what and who he was up against.
However, in it’s truest form, Dr. King was an evangelist of the Gospel. He spoke out about love, about equality as humans, a slap in the face of so-called Christians who inaccurately used God’s Word to justify an atmosphere of hatred and segregation in those times. Jesus said, “you are the light of the world, but if you hate your brother, you walk in darkness”. MLK said “only light can drive out darkness”. Jesus said “whoever doesn’t love his brother or sister who he can see, can’t possibly love God, who they can’t see”. There was nothing in Dr. King’s speeches that was not rooted in the Gospel. There was most certainly those who used the protests as an opportunity to invoke aggression, resulting in many deaths and injuries, and that troubled Dr. King as he insisted that turning the other cheek was the righteous way to demand respect and be heard. The riots in Chicago, a seemingly Liberal Northern city, shook Dr. King and gave him pause. He had expected as much in his marches through Alabama, but not in the Northern states. And yet his resolve remained-his mission was at the core, noble and righteous, and he would not be stopped or allow his cause to be hijacked by those used him to incite violence.
Dr. King was fully aware that he was exposing himself to great danger and possibly death. He had been nearly fatally stabbed before as well as hit in the head with a brick during a march. He cowered each time he heard a loud noise, expecting the worse, and yet he marched on, all the way to his premature death. If Dr. King were still alive today, would he be pleased with the progress made as a result of his activism? When you look around you can see the black influence and progress in every spectrum, in athletics, in entertainment, in rising wages and corporate promotion and even in politics, including the highest office of the land. We have come a long way. Dr. King would be pleased with progress. Would he be satisfied? I think I can safely say no. There are still unlevel playing fields in many sectors, including housing and education. It is no secret that the profits of a privatized prison system come at the expense of an overcrowded penal society made up largely of black males. And no one with open eyes can deny that in many cities racial profiling still exists among rogue officers who shoot first and search for a weapon second. No man alive includig the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will ever irradicate the evil of bigotry or the cancer of hate that has existed since Cain and Abel. As long as there remains fringes of American societies that hold to supremist ideology, people receiving different treatment and opportunity based solely on skin color, Dr. King would not be satisfied. Those who knew him best and were splattered with his blood fifty years ago today would agree-we have come a long way, but many have still not reached the Promised Land.
Today many will gather across our nation to remember the legacy and the death of Dr. King, and rightly so. When a person is so convicted and dedicated to a just cause that he is willing to die in order to achieve its birth, that person should be honored and hailed with all due fanfare. But to truly pay homage to his legacy, we as an American people need to dedicate ourselves only to that which Dr. King preached-to love our neighbors, to extend the right hand of fellowship to all men regardless of color or creed, and to stand up against all perceived racial injustices in a joint effort to see all men obtain the dream of freedom and equality, two ideals that go beyond legislation that can only be enforced with hearts of Christ-like love. No man is “free at last” if any one of them remains bound by the chains of hatred. No man can feel good about being “on the mountain top” if his fellow brothers are still trapped in the valleys below. No man can bear the cross of Christ in one hand and the torch of bigotry in the other. We can claim to walk in the spirit of light, but God sees any hidden darkness we keep secret from others. There remains much work to be done in order to usher in the true Kingdom of Christ. The civil equality Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for was conceived in the blood he spilled on that balcony fifty years ago today. It is on us as Christians first and Americans second, to carry on the fight Dr. King started in our words, in our actions and in our ideals. “In this way the world will know that you are truly my disciples, when they see the love you have for each other”. Well done Dr. King.