48 years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. His death was and is an incalculable loss to his family and our nation.
I have spoken and written many times about Dr. King. I have described him as "the 20th century's pre-eminent American Apostle of non-violence and an exemplar commitment to the pursuit of personal excellence."
At the University of San Francisco, I teach a 15-week course, "FROM SLAVERY TO OBAMA-Renewing The Promise of Reconstruction." In the weekly assignments during this historical journey, when the subject matter of the emergence of the "Civil Rights Movement" and role and leadership of Dr. King occurs, I tell my students the following:
"In 12 years and 4 months, from 1956 to April 4th, 1968, the date of his assassination, with the exception of The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. may have done more to achieve racial, social, political justice and equality than any other person or event in the previous 400+ history of The United States."
Some of what is written or referenced here today in remembrance of Dr. King may have previously been written in this space. If so, the magnitude of our nation's indebtedness to him more than off-sets the risks of earlier repetition.
No one single speech, sermon, book, or article can fully reflect the magnitude of who he was or the impact he has had on our nation since his murder. However, there is one writing or document that comes most close to accurately reflecting the essence of this extraordinary man. This is his 1963 "Letter From A Birmingham Jail."
Dr. was jailed in Birmingham on more than one occasion. One of the first was Good Friday, April 12th, 1963. Only his local Birmingham lawyer Arthur Shores and me, as his then personal lawyer from New York were permitted to visit him.
During my initial visit I took from him notes he had written on blank spaces of old newspapers and paper towels in response to the text of a full page ad in the Birmingham Herald newspaper. The ad was signed by local white clergyman. On my consecutive subsequent visits, I would bring to him blank sheets of paper for him to continue his response to those who had signed the ad.
In their ad the clergymen described Dr. King as "an outside agitator". His "Letter From A Birmingham Jail" was his response to the clergyman. In my opinion, his answer to the ad was THE "20th Century Manifesto For Political, Racial and Social Justice in America". Among other things he wrote:
...When you are harried by day and haunted by night by nagging signs reading 'white" men and "colored"; when your first name become "nigger" and your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name become 'John', and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at a tip-toe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments, when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness'--There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to plunged into and abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair.
Four months later, at the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom Dr. King, in his "I Have A Dream" speech, publicly challenged the conscience of America to end racial segregation. A few days after his speech, Assistant Director of the FBI, Sullivan, wrote a Memo to J. Edgar Hoover, the Director, in which King was described as the "most dangerous Negro in America". He wrote: "Personally, I believe in the light of King's powerful, demagogic speech" that "he stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses," "We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security."
In spite of the efforts to destroy Dr. King clandestinely and openly he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.In presenting the prize to him, Gunnar Jahn, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, among other things, said on December 10th, 1964 :
"Martin Luther King's belief is rooted first and foremost in the teaching of Christ, but no one can really understand him unless aware that he has been influenced also by the great thinkers of the past and the present. He has been inspired above all by Mahatma Gandhi6, whose example convinced him that it is possible to achieve victory in an unarmed struggle"
Today we pay tribute to Martin Luther King, the man who has never abandoned his faith in the unarmed struggle he is waging, who has suffered for his faith, who has been imprisoned on many occasions, whose home has been subject to bomb attacks, whose life and the lives of his family have been threatened, and who nevertheless has never faltered".
Twelve years later, in the April, 1976: Church Committee Reports on Domestic Surveillance and Other illegal activities by U.S. Intelligence Agencies the Committee revealed that the FBI had still been engaged in efforts to discredit Dr. King. In describing some of the Bureau's illegal activities, the Committee wrote:
In early 1968, Bureau headquarters explained to the field that Dr. King must be destroyed because he was seen as a potential "messiah" who could "unify and electrify" the "black nationalist movement". Indeed, to the FBI he was a potential threat because he might "abandon his supposed 'obedience' to white liberal doctrines (non-violence)." In short, a non-violent man was to be secretly attacked and destroyed as insurance against his abandoning non-violence.
Persons today who seek to address the needs of the homeless and poverty, stopping 24/7 wanton gun violence, fighting against anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, sexism, ending the squandering of our national treasury on "Regime Changes", and The Black Lives Matters Movement, as long as it remains non-violent and inclusive, are the most authentic current reflections of Dr. King's legacy.
Although I was very critical of the leadership of Robert Kennedy as Attorney General during the Civil Rights Movement, I came to respect him during the last years of his life. One such defining moment occurred in Gary Indiana, when he was campaigning in the Democratic primaries for president of the United States in April 1968. He received the news of Dr. King's assassination before an almost all black audience in Gary, Indiana knew that he had been killed in Memphis TN.
Standing on top of a flatbed truck he told those assembled about the news of Dr. King's assassination. He said:
I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world; and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.
We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization -- black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we 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, compassion, and love.
For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with -- be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.
But we have to make an effort in the United States.
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black
In the remaining months of the presidency of America's first African-American president, we need to reflect on the words that Robert F. Kennedy spoke 48 years ago today.