As the nation prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we should dwell not merely on how Dr. King died but also on how he lived.
He mobilized mass action to win a public accommodations bill and the right to vote. He led the Montgomery bus boycott and navigated police terror in Birmingham. He got us over the bloodstained bridge in Selma and survived the rocks and bottles and hatred in Chicago. He globalized our struggle to end the war in Vietnam.
How he lived is why he died.
As he sought to move beyond desegregation and the right to vote, to focus his work on economic justice, antimilitarism and human rights, the system pushed back hard. In the last months of his life, he was attacked by the government, the press, former allies and the military industrial complex. Even black Democrats turned their backs on him when he challenged the party’s support for the war in Vietnam.
A growing number of Americans had a negative view of Dr. King in the final years of his life, according to public opinion polls. A man of peace, he died violently. A man of love, he died hated by many.
America loathes marchers but loves martyrs. The bullet in Memphis made Dr. King a martyr for the ages.
We owe it to Dr. King — and to our children and grandchildren — to commemorate the man in full: a radical, ecumenical, antiwar, pro-immigrant and scholarly champion of the poor who spent much more time marching and going to jail for liberation and justice than he ever spent dreaming about it.
This is a painful time of the year for me because it is when I am asked to remember the most traumatic night in my life.
We had come to Memphis in 1968 to support striking sanitation workers in their fight for better wages and safer working conditions. On the evening of April 4, Dr. King was going to take a group of us, including the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Andy Young, Hosea Williams and Bernard Lee, to dinner at the home of the Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles, not far from where we were staying, the Lorraine Motel.
As we prepared to go, Dr. King cheerfully admonished me, the youngest of the group, for not being suitably dressed for the evening. I wasn’t wearing a tie. “Doc, the only prerequisite for dinner,” I joked back, “is an appetite, not a tie.”
We laughed. Dr. King loved to laugh.
After dinner we were going to attend a rally for the sanitation workers. I had brought the Operation Breadbasket Orchestra from Chicago to play at the rally. Dr. King, always the hottest ticket in any town, was scheduled to speak. He’d be hard pressed, though, to top the speech he gave the night before at the Mason Temple in Memphis, where he pledged that “we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
It was raining cats and dogs, but the Mason Temple, part of the Church of God in Christ, was nearly full. I was sitting behind Dr. King as he preached from the pulpit. He spoke with such pathos and passion that I saw grown men wiping away tears in the sanctuary. “I’m not worried about anything,” Dr. King told the crowd of about 3,000.“I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
None of us took those words as a premonition. We had heard similar sentiments from him before. Maybe we were in denial. While danger was all around, we never thought the Martin Luther King we knew and loved, admitted to Morehouse College at 15, graduated and ordained at 19, earning a Ph.D. at 26, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at 35, would be dead at 39.
On April 4, the fatal shot rang out just after 6 p.m. as we were about to get into the cars to go to dinner. Dr. King was on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. I was in the parking lot below.
A couple of hours later, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Dr. King’s successor, gathered us at the Lorraine. By then much of urban America had already moved from shock and sorrow to rage and flames. We had a choice: Surrender to our own anguish and anger, or honor the slain prince of peace by picking up the baton of nonviolent direct action.
With deep breaths, the baton firmly in our hands, we went to Resurrection City, the tent city erected by Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, and continued the work of ending poverty and the war. As the Rev. Joseph Lowery said, we would not let one bullet kill the movement.
Dr. King’s spirit has been our moral guidepost for 50 years. That spirit is alive today with the high school students of Parkland, Fla., as they push the country toward sensible gun control. It is alive with the teachers of West Virginia, who have blazed a trail for other workers. It is alive with Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers, Colin Kaepernick and thousands of African-American voters who defied the pundits and sent an Alabama Democrat to the Senate for the first time in a generation. It is alive with the Rev. William Barber as he resurrects Dr. King’s last crusade, the Poor People’s Campaign.
Dr. King bequeathed African-Americans the will to resist and the right to vote. Yet while we were marching and winning, the powers of reaction were regrouping, preparing a counterrevolution. Five decades ago, a segregationist governor, George Wallace, peddled hate and division in reaction to the civil rights movement. Today, it is the president himself who is inciting anguish, bigotry and fear.
We are in a battle for the soul of America, and it’s not enough to admire Dr. King. To admire him is to reduce him to a mere celebrity. It requires no commitment, no action. Those who value justice and equality must have the will and courage to follow him. They must be ready to sacrifice.
The struggle continues.
This essay originally appeared in the New York Times.