April 4, 1968

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America


By Michael Eric Dyson

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On April 4, 1968, at 6:01 PM, while he was standing on a balcony at a Memphis hotel, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and fatally wounded. Only hours earlier King — the prophet for racial and economic justice in America — ended his final speech with the words, “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.”

Acclaimed public intellectual and best-selling author Michael Eric Dyson uses the fortieth anniversary of King’s assassination as the occasion for a provocative and fresh examination of how King fought, and faced, his own death, and we should use his death and legacy. Dyson also uses this landmark anniversary as the starting point for a comprehensive reevaluation of the fate of Black America over the four decades that followed King’s death. Dyson ambitiously investigates the ways in which African-Americans have in fact made it to the Promised Land of which King spoke, while shining a bright light on the ways in which the nation has faltered in the quest for racial justice. He also probes the virtues and flaws of charismatic black leadership that has followed in King’s wake, from Jesse Jackson to Barack Obama.

Always engaging and inspiring, April 4, 1968 celebrates the prophetic leadership of Dr. King, and challenges America to renew its commitment to his deeply moral vision.


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When Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered, I was a nine-year-old schoolboy. I had no idea who he was, had never heard his name or seen him in action. Just as technology had allowed him to speak at his own funeral, it offered me my first glimpse of King's oratorical magic. Like so many folk born after he died, I first met King on television. I was sitting on the living room floor of my inner city Detroit home. "Martin Luther King, Jr., has just been shot in Memphis, Tennessee," the newsman announced, interrupting whatever program we were watching. My father sat behind me in his favorite chair. He was barely able to utter "humph." It was one of those compressed sighs that held back far more pain than it let loose. It came from deep inside his body, an involuntary reflex like somebody had punched him in the gut.
The newsman reported that King had been seriously wounded on a hotel balcony. Then we were ushered by film into Mason Temple for the climax of King's soul shaking last speech. When he finished, I was stunned—that words could thrill me that way, that they could cause such delicious pandemonium in an audience. King's electrifying rhetoric stood the hair on my arms at attention. Soon the newsman broke faith once more with the scheduled programming to announce the final tragedy.
"Martin Luther King, Jr., has been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, at thirty-nine years old."
After King's death, I hungered to know him. I haunted libraries in search of biographies, sent off for recordings of his speeches, talked to teachers about his life. I learned that he was a man of peace and love. I also got scared: if King could be murdered for seeking to heal the nation's racial fractures, then all black men might be vulnerable. I thought to myself: "If they killed him, and he didn't want to harm anybody, then they could kill me too." For more than a year, I couldn't stand in front of the upstairs bathroom sink because a door with a window opened onto a small balcony. I feared that I, too, might be taken out. The bullet that shattered King's jaw lodged fragments of fear deep inside my psyche.
April 4, 1968 is my effort to grapple with King's death—in my own mind, and in the life of the nation. My earlier book on the leader wrestled with his radical legacy and the way it had been hijacked by conservatives out to remake King into an opponent of both affirmative action and a culture that usefully takes race into account. The present study aims to understand just how dominant death was in King's life—how he fought death and faced it down all the same, even as he used death to rally his people in the fight for justice. By probing how King embraced death's inevitability to shape his social agenda, we may better understand how he secured his legacy on the bloody battlefields of racial transformation.
If King was his people's Moses, their charismatic and bold leader, then his vision of the Promised Land has influenced how later generations of black folk have measured their distance from the achievements he foresaw. It has been 40 years since King gave his last will and testament in Memphis and encouraged his followers to believe that he had seen the future promise of fulfillment. Are we any closer to King's beloved community, or are we wandering in a vast racial wilderness from which there is no easy escape? If the signs of arrival into the land of milk and honey are strongest for the wealthiest among us, they are depressing and weak for the poorest. Our faltering quest for justice for the lowliest members of our community suggests the responsibility of the most gifted to forge a path on their behalf. This, after all, is how King spent his last days, fighting for the rights and increased wages of striking sanitation workers. And what of the Joshuas left standing to lead their people into the Promised Land? Has charismatic leadership run its course, or do Messianic leaders still have a role to play in our national destiny? Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Barack Obama all in varying ways can claim aspects of King's black Christian leadership mantle. But have they measured up to King's own vision of how those who would come after him must respond to the crises at hand?
On the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death, it is sobering to realize that he will have been dead longer than he lived. And yet his deeply moving moral vision has lasted beyond the grave. King's painful but productive martyrdom rescued both his failing reputation as a great leader and the efforts of black folk to move further along the path to racial redemption and national thriving. But now that King is enshrined in a national holiday, his challenge to the status quo—and thus his ability as a symbol to inspire radical social change—is smothered beneath banalities and platitudes.
Only by turning to his death and martyrdom can we size up the work that remains to be done and address the suffering and hardship that too many of the folk he loved continue to face. If January 15, 1929, is a holiday celebration trumpeting the arrival of the prophet, then April 4, 1968, is a day that directly confronts the sorrows and death we must forever negotiate. King's memory continues to call us forward out of our creature comforts into the sacrifices of body and spirit that he routinely made. If we hear again his voice, and listen once more to his enduring faith, even as he confronts death, we just might successfully conquer the death and grief in our own souls and in our nation. And we might just resurrect the hope we need to inch even closer to the Promised Land he saw.

Well I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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 so 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."


YOU CANNOT HEAR THE NAME MARTIN Luther King, Jr., and not think of death. You might hear the words "I have a dream," but they will doubtlessly only serve to underscore an image of a simple motel balcony, a large man made small, a pool of blood. For as famous as he may have been in life it is, and was, death that ultimately defined him. Born into a people whose main solace was Christianity's Promised Land awaiting them after the suffering of this world, King took on the power of his race's presumed destiny and found in himself the defiance necessary to spark change. He ate, drank, and slept death. He danced with it, he preached it, he feared it, and he stared it down. He looked for ways to lay it aside, this burden of his own mortality, but ultimately knew that his unwavering insistence on a nonviolent end to the mistreatment of his people could only end violently.
Before anyone ever threatened him, King nearly died by his own hands. As a youth, he tried to kill himself twice because of his love for his grandmother. King's first fling with fate came after an accident. His brother A.D. slid down a banister and knocked their beloved matriarch motionless to the ground. Fearing that his grandmother was dead, King ran upstairs to his room at the back of the house and leaped from the opened window. He got up from his escapade unscathed after he learned that she had survived. The next time trouble struck, neither of them would be so lucky. King snuck away from home to watch a parade in Atlanta's Negro business district. His headiness of getting away with something forbidden and glee at the thrill of seeing a parade were interrupted when a friend told him that he had better hurry home. While he was having his illicit fun, his grandmother had died of a heart attack. King's youthful frolic buried him in guilt, causing him to naively wonder whether God was punishing the family because he had committed the sin of disobedience. Remorse and religion pushed him out of the window a second time. He survived his sophomore spill, but without the consoling presence of one of his biggest boyhood boosters.
The year King was born was the first in over sixty years that the South wasn't soaked in the blood of over a thousand annual lynchings. From the moment the Civil War ended until the day he was born, a theater of intimidation through public death was reenacted across the country, and had nearly codified in King's backyard. His grandparents and parents, his uncles and aunts, every single member of his family before him had learned how to live in fear, how to abide the Jim Crow ways, and how to provide for the next generation a haven carved within a black community of like-minded survivors. It was also a time of deep economic depression, and in the following decade progress would come for the African American community with the New Deal and the WPA. But the forward momentum would also be hounded by the dark forces that had been beaten back by anti-lynching associations, only to find horrific new ways to enact their particular brand of vengeance.
King later confessed that his grandmother's death forced him to clarify his beliefs about the afterlife while causing a crisis of faith. Raised in the home of a respected evangelical minister, King swallowed the beliefs around him without the need to question his father's authority. But with his grandmother went his blind faith, and though his adherence to personal morality never really wavered, a profound skepticism ate away at his fundamentalist core. It prompted him to challenge the bodily resurrection of Jesus in his father's church. King's skepticism persisted; by the second year of college he regretted going to church. He eventually cast off the narrowness of his father's church and found his own solace in a far more liberal interpretation of Christianity, pursuing truth in theology and philosophy, always seeking answers from whatever source lay at hand. His questioning nature later served him well as a leader who was open to new ideas. This piercing style of intellectual debate proved a boon to his staff, as they relished the lively and contentious interactions that King encouraged.
If King escaped his boyhood fundamentalism, he couldn't shake the foreboding finger of death that traced across his life. From the time he began to speak out, King was haunted by death—mugged by the promise of destruction for seeking an end to black indignity and the beginning of equality with whites. After a few years spent up North acquiring his education, King chose to return to where he would be needed most in the coming years—the white-hot center of the burgeoning civil rights movement and Montgomery, Alabama. At twenty-six he took on the responsibilities of a Baptist pulpit, joining forces with the local NAACP, and dug in for the yearlong bus boycott created to end the Jim Crow law of racial segregation in public transportation. During this conflict his house was bombed—his wife, Coretta, and their ten-week-old daughter, Yolanda, were home but escaped injury. It was the first time King would be tested with violence aimed at his life, but far from the last. Later in the boycott a shotgun blast was fired into King's home. King did not capitulate, but instead he emerged from the ashes of these attempts as the true phoenix of the newly minted movement. Once again, his mortality challenged, he accepted his calling without hesitation.
A couple of years after the boycott ended, King was in Harlem at Blumstein's Department Store signing Stride Toward Freedom, his account of the movement's success. From out of nowhere, a clearly disturbed black woman, Izola Ware Curry, sunk a letter opener into his chest after asking if he was Martin Luther King. Though considered an act of instability, this attack was still colored by Curry's irrational hatred of what King and the NAACP were trying to do, and by her own fear of being killed because of his constant stirring of the pot. Even so, it was one of the rare instances of black public hate directed at King, the kind that would later be famously associated with his colleague and competitor Malcolm X.
As he took flight to snip the bullying wings of Jim Crow, King ruffled the feathers of white racists, who grew more determined to bring him down. There was striking physical intimidation of King. In a show of naked aggression, two white cops attempted to block his entry into a Montgomery courtroom for the trial of a man who had attacked King's comrade Ralph Abernathy. Despite a warning from the cops, King poked his head inside the courtroom looking for his lawyer to help him get inside. His actions ignited their rage. The policemen twisted his arm behind his back and manhandled him into jail. King said the cops "tried to break my arm; they grabbed my collar and tried to choke me, and when they got me to the cell, they kicked me in." A photographer captured the scene. The shot of King—dressed in a natty tan suit, stylish gold wristwatch and a trendy snap-brim fedora—wincing as he was banished to confinement is an iconic civil rights image.
As King addressed the 1962 convention of his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a two-hundred-pound young white man rushed the stage and landed a brutal blow on his left cheek. The crowd reacted in hushed disbelief. The diminutive King never flinched or retreated, even as the young brute delivered several more blows, first to the side of his face as he stood behind King, and then two blows to his back. King gently spoke to his attacker as he continued to pummel his body. As he was being knocked backward King dropped his hands—legendary activist Septima Clark, in attendance that day, said King let down his hands "like a newborn baby"—and faced his assailant head on.
Finally, SCLC staff leader Wyatt Tee Walker and others intervened as King pleaded, "Don't touch him! Don't touch him. We have to pray for him." King quietly assured the young man he wouldn't be harmed. The leader and his aides retreated to a private office to talk with his assailant, who was, King told the audience when he returned, a member of the American Nazi Party. As King held an ice-filled handkerchief to his jaw, he informed the crowd he wouldn't press charges. Most in attendance were amazed at King's calm as violence flashed. Obviously nonviolence was more than a method and a creed; it answered assault with acts of steadfast courage.
If King was unfazed by battering, he managed, through a Herculean work ethic and a laserlike attention to his purpose, to ride the crushing stream of daily death threats that flowed from Montgomery to Memphis. Everywhere he went, disenfranchised throngs clamored to see him—while hordes of bigots wanted to see him dead. Many of the planes he rode on were delayed because of bomb threats. Many of the buildings he spoke in were secured because of threats of destruction. Many of the speeches he gave at hotels and colleges were delivered knowing that some potential crackpot—or crack shot—was roaming and ready to do him in. Many of the marches he led drew goons who violently complained of the decay of their "pure" white America. And many of the demonstrations he conducted were met by grieving white nationalists full of murderous resentment. King slashed the gnarled, Cro-Magnon verities of white supremacy with his silver tongue. The love-drunk orator also troubled racists by calling on white liberal divines in his pleas for freedom.
King deflected the blows of mortality through rhetoric and philosophy that owed as much to theater as to theology. He grasped the benefit of dramatizing his fight with death—and hence, his people's fight with social death as victims of oppression. When King's house was bombed during the boycott in Montgomery, he rushed home from a mass meeting to greet an angry crowd of blacks. By a single dramatic gesture—holding up his hand to silence the crowd, just as Malcolm X would later wave his hand over an angry crowd of Muslims in Harlem to retreat, causing a white policeman to say, "That's too much power for one man to have"—King reassured them that his wife and baby were safe. He asked them not to panic or resort to violence. "If you have weapons, take them home. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what Jesus said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies."
King urged his listeners to believe in the moral beauty of their fight for justice. Death could not derail such a movement. "I want it to be known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped, this movement will not stop. If I am stopped, our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right, what we are doing is just," King declared. "If anything happens to me, there will be others to take my place." It was a shrewd appeal to his listeners' religious beliefs. He also reinforced the virtues of nonviolence and underscored his humility as a leader. And he situated, and thereby downplayed the effect of, his possible death in a broader movement that was impossible to stop. It was the perfect fusion of truth and art.
To be sure, King was courageous in the face of death. But he confessed to his audiences that he was often afraid as well. He inspired his listeners to swap their fears for faith, just as he had done. "I went to bed many nights scared to death," King admitted, referring to the early days of the boycott. Death threats were frequent. After one of them, King got a new dose of faith in a famous kitchen encounter with God. That experience led him to an adult belief in a personal deity. King says he heard a voice saying to him to "'preach the gospel, stand up for truth, stand up for righteousness.' Since that morning I can stand up without fear." That didn't mean there weren't relapses and new struggles to overcome, or reaffirmations of faith to be made.
In a mass meeting after city buses were integrated, King voiced the sorrow and fear of black Montgomery over violent white backlash. King was toiling under the increased pressures of a man who had become a symbol for his people. He also faced the jealousy of fellow activists because of the ink and spotlight that followed him. So King took to the pulpit to pray for God's guidance. He sowed a few phrases that reaped a harvest of turmoil in his audience: "Lord, I hope no one will have to die as a result of our struggle for freedom in Montgomery. Certainly I don't want to die. But if anyone has to die, let it be me!" King's words were met by a chorus of "No"s that ripped through the congregation. Overcome with emotion, King couldn't continue. He broke down and was led to his seat by two preachers. It was one of the few times that the trauma King routinely endured slipped into public view.
King struggled constantly between bravery and the specter of breakdown. His public proclamations of fearlessness were both truthful and strategic. They were aimed at reinforcing troops in the racial trenches. But in private, blue moods sometimes sucked his spirit dry. There were times when King was undaunted by the prospect of death, addressing it with fairly objective calculation. At other times he was ambushed by the fear and world-weariness known only to those who've been fiendishly chased by government officials, fellow citizens, and hate groups. This didn't make King a hypocrite or a coward. His brutal honesty about death made him bravely human. King warred against death's sovereignty, and in some desperate moments, conceded its ugly ubiquity. In the midst of the battle, he remained strangely hopeful about using death to jumpstart social progress.
There's little doubt that King knew the price he might have to pay if he gave in to the pressures and fortunes of history. Black life was dangerous during the reign of white terror in the fifties. As King was first putting on his robes to preach in Alabama, the Supreme Court was lighting a match with their decision against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Over the summer of 1955, as the first school year that would see mixed classes approached, the Mississippi Delta began to smolder. On May 7, a black minister—Willie George Washington Lee, the first black person to vote in Humphreys County—was shot in the face, ultimately dying from his wounds. No one was charged, as the local sheriff claimed the buckshots found in his jawbone were probably fillings. On August 13, a sixty-three-year-old farmer and WWII veteran named Lamar Smith was shot on the courthouse lawn in Brookhaven, in front of the sheriff. Three men were arrested, but a grand jury of their white supremacist peers brought no indictments. Later that month a young black teenager would allegedly wolf-whistle at a white woman, and the sparks that had been flying around the state of Mississippi would ignite into one of the most horrendous and infamous lynchings of the twentieth century. Black leadership was even more a risk of one's life for the precious goal of freedom. There were those who coveted leadership in order to profit from the goodies that fell along the lime-lit path of fame. Few were truly willing to sacrifice life and limb to secure rights and privileges for the masses. King zealously embraced the task, and by doing so, inspired other leaders to do the same. "If a man hasn't found something he's willing to die for," King was fond of repeating, "he isn't fit to live." When a reporter asked him if he was afraid after a spasm of violence in Montgomery, King demurred. "Once you become dedicated to a cause, personal security is not the goal. It is greater than that. What will happen to you personally does not matter. My cause, my race, is worth dying for."
King refined his argument in an essay, writing: "If physical death is the price that a man must pay to free his children and his white brethren from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing could be more redemptive." In an interview with Alex Haley in Playboy magazine he further stated: "If I were constantly worried about death, I couldn't function. After a while, if your life is more or less constantly in peril, you come to a point where you accept the possibility philosophically." Saying that all leaders must face the fact that "America today is an extremely sick nation" and that "something could happen to me at any time," King concluded that "my cause is so right, so moral, that if I should lose my life, in some way it would aid the cause."
Regardless of these brave assertions, it would be a mistake to conclude that King was cavalier about death. Even as he acknowledged the strong possibility he might die, King fought death to the end. Less than two weeks before he was shot down, King joked with an audience in Albany, Georgia, that he had to "pray [his chartered plane] all the way in" because for a long while the plane's engine wouldn't start, making the leader late for his speech. "Now, as I've often said, I don't want to give the impression that I don't have faith in God in the air; it's simply that I've had more experience with him on the ground." At a press conference in Los Angeles after Malcolm X's death in 1965, King disclosed a discussion he had with Attorney General Katzenbach about his own safety. King admitted that death threats "are not too pleasant to discuss so I didn't want to go into great detail."
When a reporter quizzed him about the potential violence that would result from his death, King began his answer by declaring, "Well, I certainly hope that nothing happens to me." In a speech delivered at Los Angeles' Victory Baptist Church under death threats, King said: "I don't ever request police protection, but when it's given I don't ever turn it down . . . I wish I could take them back with me to Selma." King was scheduled to leave California for Selma to lead the campaign for voting rights, where he faced several more credible death threats. Before he left, King placed calls to several go-betweens to recruit prominent citizens to telegram President Johnson and seek federal protection for the leader. The brutality and murder that marchers later faced in Selma warranted King's request. On occasion, King balked at going places where the threat of death loomed, only to face down his fears and troop on.
King courageously resisted the forces that caucused against him. But the unrelenting threat of bombs exploding and snipers shooting took its toll. King suffered desperate stretches of depression that sometimes alarmed his closest aides and friends. He fought valiantly to maintain sanity and focus as his body rebelled against the baleful disharmonies of white supremacy. One of his top aides wanted him to consult a psychiatrist because of his steep descent into the doldrums. The sleeping pills he got from a physician friend stopped working. King's reliance on elbow-bending to combat insomnia and exhaustion dramatically increased. His vacations rarely allowed him to escape his troubles and pressures. And the somber tones of his voice evoked the nightmares that stalked him when he wakened from unsatisfying sleep. Martin Luther King was a marked man. There was little possibility of retreat from the maelstrom that called his name and sought his blood.


On Sale
Jan 6, 2009
Page Count
304 pages
Civitas Books

Michael Eric Dyson

About the Author

Dr. Michael Eric Dyson is an award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of over twenty books, a widely celebrated professor, a prominent public intellectual, an ordained Baptist minister, and a noted political analyst. He is a two-time NAACP Image Award winner, and the winner of the American Book Award for Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. His book The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America was a Kirkus Prize finalist. He is also a highly sought after public speaker who is known to excite both secular and sacred audiences. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee. This is his first book for teens. Follow him on Twitter @michaeledyson and on his official Facebook page (facebook.com/michaelericdyson).

Marc Favreau is the acclaimed author of Crash: The Great Depression and the Fall and Rise of America and Spies: The Secret Showdown Between America and Russia, and co-editor (with Ira Berlin and Steven F. Miller) of Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation. Favreau is also the director of editorial projects at The New Press. He lives with his family in New York City and Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

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