Fifty years ago today, on April 4, 1968, Dr. King and his group were preparing to leave the Lorraine Motel for dinner at the home of a local Memphis minister. His longtime friend from Montgomery, Ralph Abernathy, was in their room shaving. The young guys, Jesse Jackson, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young, and others, were in the parking lot below, getting items from their cars. Dr. King walked back and forth, from inside the room, to the balcony, shouting down at the young guys, even joking at one point that he hoped Jesse Jackson wouldn’t wear jeans. (In the photograph at right, Jesse Jackson, MLK, and Ralph Abernathy at the Lorraine Motel)
For just a moment, he was alone on the balcony. One shot came from across the street, striking Dr. King in the jaw. He went down. Abernathy raced out from within the motel room, Andy Young was the first from the parking lot to reach his side. They knelt over him and knew he’d died instantly. Young recalls saying something like “My God, it’s over.” To which Ralph Abernathy replied, “It will never be over.” The country and the world changed forever.
FBI agents burst out of nearby rooms at the motel. Dr. King’s group did not know they were there. Police who had surrounded the motel filled the parking lot. Law enforcement had surrounded him but they had not protected him.
As news spread across America and the world, that Dr. King had been killed, nearly ever major American city burst into flames of anger and frustration. Three years earlier, Dr. King referred to the Watts riots in Los Angeles as “the language of the unheard.” This language was loud and clear in America now. People were angry. People were hurt. This man who had hard words for America, but who had always advocated nonviolence, had been killed in a most violent way. That violence reached his wife and young children, who would be deprived of a husband and father. The country would be deprived of its most true founding father.
Dr. King died from a bullet, fired by a gunman. But I will not write his name here because his name does not matter. The important question is not “who” killed Dr. King. The important question is “what” killed Dr. King? There are many answers to this question.
What killed Dr. King? The root of racism, which is fear. Fear of “the other” killed Dr. King. The fear present in many white people that their privilege had to end, that their position in society was crushing others. This, in part, killed Dr. King.
What killed Dr. King? The lie that says if you kill the voice, the idea will die. We know this is not true because I am writing about Dr. King fifty years after his death. His passion and ideas are very much alive.
What killed Dr. King? The threatening nature of the truth he spoke about militarism, racism, and consumerism. This truth killed Dr. King. He was considered dangerous, this minister who consistently preached nonviolence was deemed dangerous, a threat to a way of life, a threat to America’s view of itself.
Until we, in America, address “what” killed Dr. King, we will not be the nation we can be. We see the open war on Black people continuing in America fifty years after Dr. King’s death. We see the quiet poison of racism infecting our relationships, housing, education, and political leaders. We have not yet had a reckoning with race in America. We have not yet done the hard work of learning and admitting the cruelty of slavery, lynchings, and segregation. Thus, we cannot do the harder work of reconciliation, which Dr. King could have led. We have not faced the brutality of capitalism in America. We have not really seen the way our structures keep poor people in poverty. Dr. King could have been instrumental in these struggles.
How can our lives now help to heal “what” killed Dr. King? We can listen to people of color. Especially we, in the majority, need to be silent and listen. This listening would only be a beginning. As a result of this listening we can re-imagine our police forces. We can admit our implicit biases and re-imagine our schools in light of them. We need to re-imagine a great deal of America. But it all starts with listening.
Photos: In the public domain