A TRULY TRAGIC EVENT occurred just after 6 p.m. on April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot while standing on the second-floor balcony near his Lorraine Motel room in Memphis, Tennessee. Rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital less than ten minutes away, King was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m.
Now, a half-century later, King’s legacy lives on and his words and deeds still inspire people of all races and in countries around the world.
At the age of 25, King was called to the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He delivered his first sermon there as pastor on May 2, 1954. (In 1978 the name of that church, which was founded in 1877 in a slave trader’s pen, was changed to Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.)
Since he accomplished so much, is remarkable that King’s tragic assassination was less than fourteen years later.
After the Rosa Parks incident in December 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was soon organized under King’s leadership in the basement of his church. A year later, King began expanding the nonviolent civil rights movement throughout the South, and in 1957 he became the founding president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
That pivotal period of time in the 1950s was also a time of racial segregation in Missouri Baptist churches and institutions. I was a student at Southwest Baptist College (now University) in 1955-57, but I have no memory of any public discussion on campus of what was going on in Alabama. There were no African-American students at SWBC then. The same was true when my wife June and I were students at William Jewell College from 1957 to 1959. It was not until 1961 that the first African-Americans student, an outstanding athlete, enrolled at WJC.
By that time I was a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville—and had the privilege of being in the unforgettable April 1961 chapel service in which MLK, Jr., spoke. Unfortunately, but maybe not surprisingly, the seminary suffered financially because of its invitation to King.
Fifty-five years ago, 1963, was a most significant year for King—and the nation. As a leader of the civil rights activities in Birmingham, Alabama, he was arrested on April 12, which happened to be Good Friday, and placed in solitary confinement. Four days later his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written on scraps of paper, was smuggled out and it subsequently became one of King’s best-known and most influential writings. Then just four months later, King led the March on Washington. Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28 he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the most powerful speeches in American history.
Because of his unswerving commitment to nonviolence, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. At that time he was the youngest person ever to receive that prestigious award.
Partly because of King’s untiring and courageous leadership in the struggle for civil rights, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The latter was largely due to the march of King and his allies from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama, in March 1965. (If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend the 2015 movie “Selma.”)
Although there was much more needing to be done to improve the lot of African-Americans, King began to speak out publicly about human rights and not just the civil rights for people of color. On April 4, 1967, he delivered a speech titled “Beyond Vietnam” at Riverside Church in New York City. About 3,000 people gathered at that historic church for his talk sponsored by Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. In that address King spoke pointedly of “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”
At the end of August that year, King delivered a speech titled “The Three Evils of Society”—and, again, he identified those triple evils as poverty, racism, and militarism. His concern for the former led him in early December to launch the Poor People’s Campaign. His trip to Memphis was related to concerns about the Memphis Sanitation Strike, which began in February in protest of racial discrimination, dangerous working conditions, and poor pay. King flew to Memphis on April 3, 1968; late that evening he delivered his seemingly prescient “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to the thousands of people gathered at the Church of God in Christ headquarters auditorium.
King was killed early in the evening of the next day as he was preparing to go to dinner with friends and colleagues. He was only 39 years old.
In the April 5 issue of the New York Times, Murray Schumach began his lengthy obituary of King with these notable words:
To many million [sic] of American Negroes, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the prophet of their crusade for racial equality. He was their voice of anguish, their eloquence in humiliation, their battle cry for human dignity. He forged for them the weapons of nonviolence that withstood and blunted the ferocity of segregation.
Those were words of remembrance fit for a king—this King!
In spite of King’s tragic death, the Poor People’s Campaign continued. On Mother’s Day, May 12, just over a month after MLK’s funeral, thousands of women led by Coretta Scott King, Martin’s grieving wife, formed the ﬁrst wave of demonstrators. The following day, Resurrection City, a temporary settlement of tents and shacks, was built on the Mall in Washington, D.C.
That movement still goes on. This past November, on the anniversary of the announcement of the King-led Poor People’s Campaign, William Barber II, the dynamic North Carolina pastor, announced the launching of the new Poor People’s Campaign. Starting next month on Mother’s Day, it will begin in earnest with forty days of “direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience.” Plans and training for the upcoming events are currently taking place in many states, including Missouri and Kansas.
King’s influence has extended far beyond the borders of the United States. For example, in the fall of 1968, I began teaching Christian Studies at Seinan Gakuin University in Fukuoka City, Japan. I soon became aware of the high regard for King among Japanese people. Many of my students were critical of the racial prejudice they knew that existed in the United States, which they thought of as a “Christian nation.” Many of them, though, were impressed with and inspired by King—especially by his “I Have a Dream” speech, which was often used by students in speech contests sponsored by the English Speaking Society. And many of them began to look upon Christianity more favorably when they learned that King was a Baptist preacher. (Some Baptist churches in Japan have sought to gain public understanding of and appreciation for their churches by referring to their indirect connection to King.)
At the 70th anniversary of Seinan Gakuin, the school system which was founded by Southern Baptist missionaries in 1916, Coretta Scott King accepted our invitation to be the guest speaker. Some 4,000 people gathered to hear her speak at the public auditorium we rented in downtown Fukuoka City for that special occasion.
So both in this country and abroad, Christians and non-Christians alike have been inspired and energized by the remarkable life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. As he is being widely remembered this month because of his tragic assassination 50 years ago, let’s join together in the ongoing struggle against racism, militarism, and poverty, the still-prevalent triplet evils he fought against so valiantly.