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In Memorium: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

April 04, 2009

As we did last year on April 4, today we honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on this day, forty-one years ago.

An embattled Dr. King had returned to Memphis a day earlier to resume his efforts on behalf of striking sanitation workers in that city. His nascent Poor People's Campaign, a march on Washington, D.C., to protest the plight of America's poor, had met with resistance among some of his aides and confidantes, who saw it as "too sweeping and strategically uncertain," and engendered fierce criticism and even outright hostility among his detractors. All too aware that the campaign "was...lapsing into logistical and financial dishevelement," King, according to former journalist and King biographer Marshall Frady, was in a fragile state of mind characterized by a "sense of embattled aloneness [and] growing fatalistic gloom."

Visitors found him "a profoundly weary and wounded spirit," with "a profound sadness" having settled over him....[A] former SCLC staffer in Los Angeles would recall that he kept maintaining "that his time was up," that "he knew they were out to get him." To another close aide, he seemed almost in a trance of "weariness, just weariness of the struggle." Yet he could get no more than an hour or two of sleep....

Sometime during the afternoon of April 3, King decided that his chief lieutenant Ralph Abernathy should speak in his place that evening at a rally of sanitation workers and their supporters at Mason Temple. When Abernathy arrived, he found a large and enthusiastic crowd and a battery of network news cameras. He phoned Dr. King at the Lorraine Motel, where they were staying, and urged him to reconsider. Frady again:

King shortly appeared, to jubilant cheers and clapping, for what was to be the last mass meeting of his life. When he took the pulpit, lightning was still flashing outside with claps of thunder. The night was so sweltering that "the fans were on"...and as King began speaking, the fans "would bang now and then, and each time they did, King gave a start. So they finally shut them off." King's heavy, measured voice knelled over the congregation, mounting in momentum to the accompanying surges of shouts and applause....

Martin Luther King was struck down the next afternoon on the second-story balcony of the Lorraine Motel by a single shot from a high-powered rifle. He was thirty-nine.

While Dr. King no doubt would be proud of how far we have come in realizing his dream of a nation in which his children, in which all children, are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, he would be dismayed by how much work there is left to do. Till the last day of his life, he worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor, the weak, and the downtrodden and against hatred, violence, and injustice. He believed passionately in the promises inscribed in our founding documents and in what another great American leader called the better angels of our nature. In this troubled time, let us remember the brave and courageous example he set and the faith he had in us to do the right thing.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."

    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

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