I once was asked if I could choose three people to have dinner with, who would I pick? My answer: “Jesus Christ, Billy Graham, and Martin Luther King, Jr.” If I was asked today the same question, my answer would still be the same (although my list of choices have grown).
I grew up in the generation of segregation and civil rights, and saw, and admired, Dr. King’s efforts to move a people and a country toward racial accord. He was a man of commitment and courage. Fifty years ago this past week, Dr. King’s life was abruptly snuffed out by assassination.
In 1968, Dr. King was working to mobilize what he called the “Poor People’s Campaign” in Washington, DC. His goal was to gather thousands of impoverished people of all races from all across the country. They would stage protests at our nation’s capital until lawmakers enacted reforms to eradicate poverty in this country.
On March 31, 1968, Dr. King preached his last sermon at the Washington National Cathedral to a huge audience as he delivered, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Throughout his sermon he called his listeners to join God in a movement that would bring righteousness to a culture divided by racial bigotry and endemic poverty.
In his message, he noted: “On some positions, cowardice asks the question: Is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question: Is it politic? Vanity asks the question: Is it popular? Conscience asks the question: Is it right?” After a short pause, Dr. King stated, “There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.” Four days later, Dr. King was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee.
Dr. King ended his final sermon by quoting a hymn as a challenge to America, the church, and all of humanity:
Once to ev’ry man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
Off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
‘Twixt that darkness and that light.
In the midst of this massive effort, he was asked to divert his attention to Memphis to support a garbage collectors’ strike that had been ongoing in that city for weeks. Dr. King felt he owed these men and their families his support, so he and his leadership team made their way to join them.
Of course, he could not have known that an escaped felon named James Earl Ray was seeking to murder him. Ray had been discharged from the Army, but not before he acquired basic proficiency with a rifle. After escaping from prison, he followed a circuitous route that brought him to Memphis.
There he learned through television and newspaper reports that Dr. King was staying at the Lorraine Motel in room 306, his usual lodging when in the city. Ray rented a room in a run-down building across the street.
Dr. King and his group were planning a dinner that night at a supporter’s home. He walked from his room onto the hotel balcony and was talking with his friends in the parking lot below when Ray fired the bullet that killed him.
It is reported that despite numerous death threats, Dr. King rarely sought police protection. He believed that if his enemies were determined to kill him, they would likely succeed.
Dr. King told his attorney, “I’ll never live to be forty. I’ll never make it.” “He was philosophical about his death,” longtime colleague Andrew Young said later. “He knew it would come, and he just decided, you know, there was nothing to do about it.”
When President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Dr. King told his wife, Coretta, that he expected to die in the same way himself. If the president of the United States could not be protected from an assassin, he believed that no public figure was truly safe.
The night before he was murdered, he told a crowd of supporters that God had allowed him to reach the mountaintop and see the Promised Land. “I may not get there with you,” he told them. “But I want you to know, tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” Then he exclaimed, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The next day, Martin Luther King, Jr. would see the Lord himself.
Dr. King was right — God calls us to stand for what is right because it is right. Whatever the cost, whatever it takes, wherever he leads.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.