It has been 48 years today since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. at 6:01 p.m. (a time of day U2 managed to get completely wrong in “Pride”).
As most schoolkids know (one would hope), King was in Memphis to support the sanitation worker’s strike. The night of April 3, he delivered his “Moutaintop” speech at the Mason Temple. There had been a bomb threat against his flight into Memphis, which prompted the following passage in the speech, generally considered one of the all-time greatest moments of American oratory:
“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. [applause] 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! [applause] And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
He was dead less that 24 hours later.
The evening of April 4, Robert Kennedy, campaigning in Indiana, received word that King had died. Standing on a flatbed truck in Indianapolis, Kennedy told the assembled about King, delivering one of the other greatest moments in American oratory.
Here is an excerpt:
“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 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, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
If you can read this and not collapse in despair at the quality of contemporary, national political rhetoric, you are are tougher than I am.