Forty-five years ago today, Dr. King was back in Memphis. He had been in the city weeks before to support the city’s black sanitation workers in their “I am a man” campaign. The black sanitation workers were on strike against the city’s unequal pay practices; they were paid less than their white counterparts doing the same jobs. But during that earlier visit, violence broke out at a march, deeply disappointing Dr. King. His deep belief in the power of nonviolence compelled him to return. He wanted to get it right. So on April 4, 1968, he found himself back in Memphis to try again.
He, and his companions, stayed at the Lorraine Motel so often they jokingly called their rooms “The King-Abernathy Suites.” Between 5:30pm and 6:00pm, they were preparing for a dinner at the home of a local pastor. Dr. King was dressed and ready. Ralph Abernathy, his friend from the Montgomery Bus Protest days, was in room 306 still getting dressed. Many of the younger guys, Jesse Jackson, Jr., Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, among others, were below in the motel parking lot getting items from the cars. Dr. King, as he often did, playfully shouted down to Jesse Jackson that he hoped he wasn’t wearing jeans.
For a brief moment, Dr. King stood on the balcony alone. One shot from a high powered rifle came from across the street, striking Dr. King, likely killing him instantly. Ralph Abernathy came from within the room and Andrew Young was the first to sprint up the stairs from the parking lot. They knelt over his body. Dr. King never regained consciousness and never spoke another word. An ambulance took him to Memphis’ St. Joseph Hospital where he was declared dead at 7:05pm.
Most of us know the sadness and anger that gripped America over the next several days. There were riots in nearly every major American city. Parts of my adopted hometown, Washington, D.C., burned for days. The rioting proved precisely what Dr. King often said about riots: “Riots, at bottom, are the language of the unheard.” The anger at inequality that fueled the riots lived just beneath the skin of America. It just took the assassination of Dr. King to bring it forth.
At the age of 39 when he died, Dr. King was no fool. He was no stranger to death threats. He and his family had received death threats since 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. He knew this day would likely come and many will remember how movingly he preached about the shortness of life, just the night before he was killed.
Dr. King also held a consistently clear-eyed view of the need for nonviolence in a world torn by the profound inequalities he named the American triplets of militarism, racism, and materialism. Whether he talking about materialism and the massive gap between rich and poor in America and around the world– or whether he was writing about the inequalities involving race– Dr. King knew that if we did not turn to nonviolence, we would dramatically increase the suffering caused by these inequalities in the world.
To address these injustices, he wrote powerfully of our need to build a World House. This World House, another metaphor for the Beloved Community, would be a place in which people actively engaged each other to bridge the fractures in our communities caused by militarism, racism, and materialism. In the World House, people could actively work together to raise the poor from the degrading conditions in which so many live, both in America and around the world. Dr. King knew that if we did not address these issues with nonviolence and creativity, many more people would suffer from the violence that lives just below the surface in our communities.
So, how are we doing forty-five years after Dr. King’s assassination? I suppose it’s too simple to say we have a long way to go. But it’s true. Many Americans still live in segregated communities. America’s military budget is the largest in human history. Income inequality in America has reached staggering proportions. We have to work harder at listening to others, reaching out to others, seeing one another, and taking responsibility for each other. America’s culture of “rugged individualism” does not serve us well in the 21st century. Millions lack health care, homelessness and mental illness among veterans runs nearly unchecked.
Dr. King was killed forty-five years ago today because he named and confronted the American triplets of militarism, racism, and materialism. He urged us to embrace nonviolence as the only way to address them. How do you think we’re doing?