Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.

A Man for This Season 

Most of us live, eat, and die and the world takes no notice. But, this man, a black preacher from Alabama, changed his world and ours. We have always been a nation divided by race—and those divisions are again amplified. The time is right to pause and reflect on his journey.

J. Edgar Hoover, Executive Director of the FBI during King’s lifetime, would be disappointed that there is a national holiday in King’s honor. The FBI began monitoring King in December 1955, after his involvement with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Throughout the 1960s, agents bugged his home, his office and his hotels. Hoover believed that King was the most dangerous black man in America and sought to discredit him as a hypocritical, egomaniacal, subversive who hated America. In 1964, the FBI Director called King “the most notorious liar in the country.” Hoover was a gifted and talented liar—fantastic even—so it is hard to accept his assessment of King.

Hoover was hardly the only one to call King—in the parlance of my youth—“out of his name.” Today we understand that the war in Vietnam was an unholy war, but when King condemned it, he was branded a communist traitor. Insulting descriptions of King in newspapers were many and varied: radical, extremist, criminal, rabble-rouser, trouble-monger, charlatan, and so-called preacher.  White segregationists sank even lower, labeling him “Martin Lucifer King” and “Martin Luther Coon.” Young black activists, frustrated with King’s non-violence approach, called him “Da Lord.”        

King was blamed for race riots, blamed for black children going to jail, blamed for the bombing that kill the four girls in a Birmingham church, even blamed for his own death. Long before he was murdered, his character was assassinated.   

Words hurt, so do fists. In 1962, during a Southern Christian Leadership Conference meeting, Roy James, a white man, left the audience leapt onto the stage and punched King in the face—hit him hard. King dropped his hands and stood there, allowing the assailant to strike him again. When his associates came forward, King said, “Don’t touch him. We have to pray for him.” King understood that forgiveness is not weakness.

In 1965, James George Robinson, a white states righter, attacked King for trying to register at the Hotel Albert, a formerly whites only business in Selma, Alabama. He punched King several times, and before black onlookers intervened, kicked him in the groin. King refused to press charges stating that he had sympathy for Robinson.  Two months later, Robinson was arrested for beating a SNCC photographer.

In August 1966, King led civil rights demonstrators on a march for fair housing in Chicago. They were met by white youths, goaded and hyped by the rants of Nazis and Klansmen. George Lincoln Rockwell, a self-styled Nazi Fuehrer, told the teenagers to get guns “to fight niggers.”[1] The youths shouted “we want white power” and “kill the niggers.”[2] At least 30 people were injured, some by a hail of bricks, stones, and bottles. A knife was thrown at King. He was knocked to the ground by a rock or brick.  King told reporters, “I have never seen such hate—not in Mississippi or Alabama—as I see here in Chicago.”[3]

We all die, some of us are murdered.  In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that someone would kill King. On January 30, 1956, only weeks after the movement began, a white terrorist walked up to King’s home and tossed an explosive on the porch. The bomb damaged the home but did not injure Coretta Scott King or Yolanda, their seven month old daughter. King was at a nearby church delivering a speech, he returned home to find it surrounded by black people thirsty for revenge. Standing a few feet from the site of the explosion, the young preacher channeled his inner angel. “I want you to love our enemies,” he told the crowd. “Love them and let them know you love them.”[4] A year later, someone threw twelve sticks of dynamite wrapped around a tube onto the porch of King’s home. The bomb did not explode.

On Sept. 20, 1958, King was in Blumstein’s Department Store in Harlem, signing copies of his book Stride Toward Freedom. Izola Curry, a black woman, asked him if he was Martin Luther King, Jr. He said yes. She plunged a steel letter opener into his chest. He was rushed to Harlem Hospital. He forgave her while the cold blade was still in his chest. In a painstaking operation, surgeons opened King’s chest, exposing his aorta, and removed the weapon. If he had sneezed, he would have died.

On June 10, 1966, Chester White, a 67-year-old caretaker on a large farm, was brutally murdered by several Klansmen in Natchez, Mississippi. He was not a civil rights worker. He was not involved in the voting rights struggle. He was not a “trouble maker.” He was a black man, and the local Klan needed to kill a black man—any black man—to lure King to the city, so they could kill him, too. The scheme failed.

It is fashionable to criticize King, but those who disparage him have warm breath in their lungs. He, however, is dead, assassinated by James Earl Ray, a fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary.  I am reluctant to use the word assassinated. I know that when public figures are killed it is expected that we say they were assassinated, but that word somehow hides the ugliness of the act. He was murdered—cold bloody murder. Do not say that he gave his life: his life was taken.

For twelve years King walked through and lived in the valley of the shadow of death. He defied death threats to lead marches in Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles. He never saw his fortieth birthday—he did not have the opportunity to outgrow his faults.  I am thankful that he lived long enough to help the nation outgrow some of its faults. King delivered a speech in support of striking sanitation workers at Mason Temple, in Memphis, on the day before he was killed. It sounded like a eulogy—for himself.

"And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk   about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don't know what will happen now.   We've got some difficult days    ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. 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. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

April 4, 1968, was an awful day in this country’s past.  King was murdered by a coward, safely shooting from a flophouse bathroom across the street from the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.  It angers me that Ray used a rifle to gain a name—forever linking himself to King. While we are here honoring King, white supremacists are wishing each other Happy James Earl Ray Day.

I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, during the last years of Jim Crow. The governor was George Wallace, a white supremacist during a time when that label was a badge of honor in many places. I believed those days were spent. I was wrong. Awful days are here again. Politicians with a blood lust for power feed racial hostilities—and anyone who checks them is called a racist. The rhetoric that I hear from our national leaders is reminiscent of Wallace’s rants. Hate and fear, alas, remaining primary organizing forces.

Those of us committed to social justice must fight the good fight, run and not get weary, be people of conscience, social reformers who help the poor and disfavored while also speaking truth to power. We will sometimes be angry, but we must never be dragged so low as to hate others. If this country is to ever become that city on the top of the hill it will be because those of us committed to a just society refuse to hate.

David Pilgrim
Jim Crow Museum 2020

References

[1] “Chicago Marchers Attacked,” Times (Shreveport, Louisiana), August 22, 1966, 1.

[2] “Rights Marchers in Chicago Pelted With Eggs, Bottles,” Tampa Tribune (August 15, 1966), 24.

[3] “Racial Violence Erupts as Rights Group Parades,” Lebanon Daily News (Lebanon, Pennsylvania), August 6, 1966, 3.

[4] Stephen C. Barton, The Cambridge Companion to the Gospels (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 240.

Martin Luther King Jr. Video