I recall feeling as stunned by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King as I had been when President John Kennedy was shot in Dallas. I had to choose one person that I consider to be my the most extraordinary hero of the twentieth century it would have to be Dr. King. When I heard the news of his death I was stunned and as I was washing dishes I became so upset that I dropped a plate that I had been rinsing and it shattered along with my dreams. I was only nineteen years old at the time, and I felt as though the world had gone mad. It was days later before I was even able to process what had actually happened and it was then that I fell apart.
I remember wanting to desperately to talk with my not yet mother-in-law because I knew that she had been as impressed by Dr. King as I was. Several days had passed before I finally saw her and I found comfort in knowing that she was as shaken and grief stricken as I was. Neither of us said much and our words for each other were not particularly wise, but our common bond of love and respect for this great man was palatable, Just sitting quietly with her sustained me as I quietly thought of how great our nation’s loss had been and of Dr. King’s a martyrdom for a noble cause.
The fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death occurred just this week, and I found myself once again feeling quite distressed at the thought of how horrific his murder was. He is undoubtedly my number one hero from the twentieth century and over the last five decades I have often longed for his wisdom and leadership. There had been a time when I had believed that he might one day be President of the United States. His influence in bringing about the passage of the Civil Right Act cannot be underestimated and I thought that we would honor him with our gratitude rather than cutting his brilliant life so short. His courage and incredible speaking ability allowed him to become a voice for all people who have endured prejudice and injustice. His “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the finest in the history of mankind, ranking with the Gettysburg Address and other great rhetorical masterpieces.
I remember being quite surprised when I realized that Dr. King had been somewhat small in stature. Somehow he had loomed so large in my mind that I imagined that he must be a giant. The monument of him in Washington D.C. is carved out of an enormous boulder and seems to be a fitting representation of his impact on the history of our country, and yet he was always a humble man who worried that he was never doing enough to hurry the pace of integration and civil rights.
I have literally felt his spirit when I went to Birmingham, Alabama and placed my hands on the jail bars that once imprisoned him. I felt the same rush of something quite spiritual when I walked through his boyhood home in Atlanta, Georgia and again in his parsonage in Montgomery, Alabama. When I gazed up at the balcony in Memphis, Tennessee where he was standing when he was shot I felt as though someone had kicked the breath out of me. I almost saw him standing there, feeling so tired and wrestling with a sense of foreboding that his days were numbered. He was a target for the worst instincts of humankind, but he continued to preach a doctrine of civil disobedience rather than violence. He was always first and foremost a minister of God’s word. In that spirit he dreamed of a world in which we all might follow the commandment of love,
Martin Luther King was no more perfect than any of us. He admitted to his own failings which included bouts of depression and times of doubt. He sometimes wanted to leave the limelight and quietly live a more comfortable existence, but each time he considered such ideas something in his mind told him that he was supposed to continue his work. I have often wondered where he found his strength, but then I remember that he gave full credit to his faith in God. He felt that he had been chosen for the difficult task and he followed his vocation even when it became brutally difficult. The attacks on his character came from both his enemies and those who called themselves his friends. Sometimes he felt quite alone, but then he always remembered his God.
Somehow there have been great men and women who rose to the challenges of different situations. Some say that Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War completed the task of creating a society in which all people had unalienable rights. The reality is that a hundred years after the Gettysburg Address and the abolition of slavery there were people in our country who were treated abysmally. The sons and daughters and grandchildren of slaves were still being denied the rights that should have been theirs and it took the dedication of countless individuals to overthrow the horrific practices that were still protected by laws of segregation and inequality. All of those souls played an important part in the outcome of the civil rights movement, but Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was their voice just as Lincoln had been for the slaves.
I know that there are still problems in our country that must be resolved, and I hope and pray that more and more of us will do our part to insure that no person is treated differently due to race, sex, or religion. We have come far, but it would be premature to believe that the work is done. If Dr. King were still here I suppose that he would be able to express the problems in an elegant manner that everyone might understand. Out of honor for his work it is incumbent on all of us to do what we can to honor his memory by living the way he wanted all of us to be. The process of justice begins one person at a time, and it is our duty to do what we can to protect even the most vulnerable among us.
I cry tears of both joy and sadness when I think of Martin Luther King. I am happy that he accomplished as much a he did, but I worry whenever I witness racism and realize that it is alive and well while such a great man is dead. In this Easter season we often think of the life of Jesus Christ whose words should guide us just as they did Dr. King. If we truly wish to do God’s work we must continue the work that Martin Luther King showed us how to do.