On April 4, 1968, I was grounded for some reason that now escapes me—probably because of paternal capriciousness rather than childhood petulance. I recall a few days earlier that I overheard my father opine that Martin Luther King, Jr., would probably be shot. At the age of twelve, I was not fully aware of the reasons why my dad would make such a prediction, but when the news bulletin came on the television that King had indeed been shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, I was completely shocked. I begged my mother to plead with my father to allow me to watch TV; I guess he was also thrown for a loop over King’s fatality, so to speak, for he granted me my wish. And as a little over four years earlier when Pres. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, I was glued to the television set for the next few days until King’s funeral was over.
I have to admit that the trajectory of my life—apart from my having Christian faith—owes a large part to my understanding of this tragedy and this man who became my hero. Since that dark day in 1968, especially for the next couple of decades, I read everything I could put my hands on about King. My parents bought me records of King’s speeches, they shared with me magazine articles about King, and I was always on alert for anything that came across my living space referencing the good doctor. I sought ways to address the plight of the poor and the marginalized in our society, and eventually visited Atlanta, was licensed to preach at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and elected to pursue my doctorate at Boston University, where King received his Ph.D. degree. At times, I even mimicked King’s voice, so much so that I was often asked to recite his famous speeches, which I knew by heart.
Here we are fifty years since his murder, and we find ourselves sadly dealing with different manifestations of the same ills he gave his life trying to resolve: racism, materialism, and militarism. For me, it can be heartrending to realize that the killing of unarmed black men, the deportation of undocumented children, the obliviousness of Native American concerns remain despite King’s efforts towards desegregation, integration, and equal civil and human rights. The alarming divide between the rich and the poor has exacerbated since the 1960s and the disparities in quality of life between them have enlarged and intensified. And who would have thought that we’d return to the perverse cold-war era in the twenty-first century and still engage in arms races with a growing number of adversaries?
I do not like to talk in terms of what-ifs or hypotheses contrary to the facts. I never liked the “what would Jesus do” fad or the “if King were alive” charade. However, I do believe that we can deal effectively with contemporary issues if we can learn appreciably from our past. There have been many attempts at nonviolent direct action campaigns since the sixties, and we see a proliferation of them today with Black Lives Matter, Me Too, March for Our Lives, teacher walkouts, demonstrations against voter suppression, and others. Whereas King was not the best organizer or administrator, he was able to have good workers around him and to articulate in the most eloquent of terms the beauty and worth of human personality, the ethic of love, the need to commit oneself to something meaningful, and the specific goals and objectives of each endeavor.
Furthermore, he was able to instill in all who listened a practical or realistic optimism about the future. He believed that the best in the universe would eventually supersede the worst, that one day justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream as the prophet Amos foretold, and that we could live together as sisters and brothers instead of the alternative of perishing as fools.
We have not reached the end of that moral arc, which means that we have much more work to do. So let’s get busy!