This morning I woke up, still feeling unwell, and thinking that I would blog about the difficulties I’m having with my new cell phone (the problem not being with the phone, but with me). I turn on the radio—CBC 2, and the news mentions that today, April 4, marks the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Civil Rights Leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You know me; I head to the computer to learn more about MLK. After a lot of reading, I wound up watching several speeches, and finally I watched a documentary about his life, and the social movement he helped develop. After all this research, my head was too full of too much information. I soaked in the tub and washed the dishes, the whole time my face is twisted in this disturbed expression. I want to write about this…but where do I begin? It’s such a huge part of history, it is connected to so many other stories, and it’s all so heart wrenching. Who am I to write about this? But it’s inside of me now, this information that before this morning, I knew a bit, but not a lot. And now I am haunted, and must release the ghost.
Ralph Abernathy, one of King’s closest associates, said that the movement started with Rosa Parks, a woman who refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person in 1955; and while King did not create the social movement, it created him. He was a Baptist minister who was elected as Present to the MIA (Montgomery Improvement Association), which established the Montgomery Bus Boycott, following Parks’ arrest. This boycott brought national attention to racial segregation in the South. In 1957 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was created, with King as president. The SCLC was a major component in the Civil Rights Movement, and their mission was to restore particular rights to the African-American community following Gandhi’s non-violent approach to civil disobedience.
King was extremely active in the movement until his death in 1968. He was beloved, revered, but he also made a lot of enemies; the FBI had logged approximately 50 death threats up until the year of his murder. One letter in particular urged Dr. King to commit suicide, referring to him as an “evil, abnormal beast” and repeatedly scribing three menacing words: “You are done”. The FBI and J Edgar Hoover did not appreciate King’s message or his influences on others—especially when he went beyond the issue of segregation and criticized the war in Vietnam, amongst other issues, like the division amongst the rich and poor. That is when he began to pose a threat, and according to Hoover, made him “the most dangerous man in America”. When King received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in 1964, Hoover said that he was “one of the lowest characters in the country”. King was considered a subversive and was subject to investigations under COINTELPRO, which was a government sector meant to: “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” organizations and individuals. King knew that his life was in danger and apparently said so to his wife Coretta following the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy: “This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society”.
The 39 year old minister, activist, husband and father was in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968 to participate in an on-going protest of over-worked and underpaid sanitation workers (being paid “starvation wages” in a job that was “two steps above slavery”. The night before his death, as a storm raged outside, he delivered his final speech. In it, he refers unknowingly to his impending demise: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will…I may not get there with you….I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man”.
The next day, shortly before 6:01pm, Martin Luther King Jr. was standing outside his hotel room, #306 at the Lorraine Motel (known as the King-Abernathy suite, as they apparently stayed there often). The room was on the second floor, and he waited on the balcony as his mate went back inside to apply more cologne. According to the many internet sources, the general mood amongst King and his men was lively, everyone was getting ready for dinner, and they were laughing (and according to one source, a pillow fight ensued), and feeling joyful. People had started to gather down below, as his exact location (room number and all) was being announced on the radio. Jesse Jackson was on site, and recalls King calling down to musician Ben Branch a moment before he was murdered: “Make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty”, which were allegedly his last words. When King was shot—one single blast that broke his jaw and neck, severing a jugular vein, it ripped his necktie clean off his shirt, and he died within the hour. And just like that, the merriment had ceased and this man died for a cause that had defined his life, and changed the lives of so many others.
That same night, Robert Kennedy, (who would be assassinated two months later), announced King’s death at a campaign rally in an African-American ghetto in Indiana. Throughout other parts of the country, in over 100 American cities, people were rioting and it was believed that Kennedy’s speech—stopped rioting from happening in Indianapolis. He insisted that King’s death not be in vain, that his approach to non-violent civil disobedience was not to be in vain. “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 or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black”.
This was only 45 years ago; it was not that long ago that racism existed to this extent, that peaceful marches were interrupted with police dogs and fire hoses. And in some ways, I fear some things haven’t really changed. Wars are still waging, there is still a huge division between the rich and the poor, and there is still so much violence, hatred and bloodshed. There is still a need for people to fight the causes of equality and justice. And you have to be grateful for those who have the strength to defend those causes. My head is now swimming with all these names and faces, the stories and struggles, and I am grateful for the morning news to have lead me to a place of better understanding.
I always think about this civil rights movement when I think of DOMA and Prop8 and the ridiculous arguments going on in the USA right now. If you replace ‘black people’ with ‘gay people’ the rhetoric is hauntingly familiar, i’m thinking specifically to your ‘evil and abnormal’ quote from above. When will people realize they’re on the wrong side of history?
I know exactly what you mean…it feels like we’ve come so far, and then as you say, history repeats itself in “hauntingly familiar” ways.
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