Forty years ago today, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was felled by an assassin's bullet. He was 39.
Robert F. Kennedy, campaigning for president in 1968, was in Indianapolis on the evening of April 4, 1968. The first to tell the crowd the terrible news, he reminded them of what Dr. King lived and ultimately died for:
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. ... [W]e can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, with compassion and love.
Out of nearly 100 major cities in America that rioted at the news of Dr. King's assassination, Indianapolis was not among them. Just two months after this speech, Robert Kennedy too would be assassinated by gunshot.
From these horrible losses would come the Gun Control Act of 1968, one of the few pieces of national gun control legislation on the books today.
Dr. King said many profound things in his public and ministerial career. His statement at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 3, 1963 -- one month before I had the opportunity to hear him and meet him in my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana -- seems particularly meaningful today:
The reason I can't follow the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy is that it ends up leaving everybody blind. Somebody must have sense and somebody must have religion. I remember some years ago, my brother and I were driving from Atlanta to Chattanooga, Tennessee. And for some reason the drivers that night were very discourteous or they were forgetting to dim their lights .... And finally A.D. [King's brother] looked over at me and he said, "I'm tired of this now, and the next car that comes by here and refuses to dim the lights, I'm going to refuse to dim mine." I said, "Wait a minute, don't do that. Somebody has to have some sense on this highway and if somebody doesn't have sense enough to dim the lights, we'll all end up destroyed on this highway."
And I'm saying the same thing for us here in Birmingham. We are moving up a mighty highway toward the city of Freedom. There will be meandering points. There will be curves and difficult moments, and we will be tempted to retaliate with the same kind of force that the opposition will use. But I'm going to say to you, "Wait a minute, Birmingham. Somebody's got to have some sense in Birmingham."
If Dr. King is looking down on us today, I can imagine him seeing 12,352 gun murders a year in the United States -- nearly 34 every day -- and telling us that "the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy leaves everyone blind."
Somebody's got to "have some sense" in America.