It was fifty years ago, just the other day, since Martin Luther King Junior was murdered – shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee. He was only thirty-nine years old when he died, but it was thirty-nine years into which he had packed the work of several life-times, or so it seemed.
To this day, there is a lot of mystery surrounding his death. Who did it? Who ordered it? Why? What has never been in question is the motive for the dastardly act – hatred. And perhaps fear? The events surrounding his death tell much about the story of his life, and the impact of it. He was in Memphis to support black sanitary workers, who were striking for better pay and improved conditions of service. There had been rumours of strange happenings for some days before the incident. Even his flight to Memphis had been delayed by a bomb threat to his airplane.
Five days into his sojourn, he addressed a rally in a Church auditorium. His speech at the rally would define his person and his mission through the ages, and would resonate through all the corners of the world.
‘…Well, I don’t know what will happen…But it doesn’t matter to me now… 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. 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…’
It is a speech that many cannot hear, even now, without shedding a tear.
At one minute after six o’clock in the evening of the day he made what has been called his ‘Mountaintop’ speech, MLK was shot down as he stood on the balcony of his hotel room. The bullet smashed through his right cheek, travelled down his spinal cord, and went on to lodge in his shoulder. Despite prompt and expert medical attention, including emergency surgery, he was dead barely an hour later.
His autopsy would reveal that he was a thirty-nine-year-old man with the heart of a sixty-year-old man. The stress of one and a half decades of struggle in the course of Civil Rights for the black and downtrodden in America, with their regular life-style of ‘junk’ food and life on the road that it spawned, had clearly taken a toll on his health. It has been put about since then that a certain James Earl Ray was tried and convicted for the assassination of Martin Luther King Junior.
The ‘facts’ are not as indisputably clear as they might have been, and are contested to the present day. Everything has been queried – starting from the direction from which the shot came, which is disputed by some of his colleagues who were present at the scene, to the motive and the ability of a minor criminal such as James Earl Ray to carry out such a complicated mission.
In a bizarre development, several years after the conviction of James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King’s son would go to the prison to meet his supposed assassin. There he would express the view that the prisoner was wrongly convicted, the real killer had not been caught, and the accused deserved a new trial.
Lurking in the swirling undercurrent of suspicion that is yet to abate is a worry that some persons in government, or some agency of it, had masterminded the conspiracy that led to the assassination, cleverly covering up their tracks and using the petty criminal Ray as a ‘fall guy’.
For a man of peace, MLK had a lot of enemies. His whole life, in a way, consisted of lining up and standing eyeball to eyeball with a wide variety of enemies who represented the things he abhorred in society, and basically starting them down. His sole weapon in the battle was the moral authority of non-violence, honed to a sharp edge with the power of courage and an unparalleled gift of the garb.
J Edgar Hoover, the powerful, much-feared head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was one such avowed enemy. He had been on MLK’s case almost from the start of his career, and he was not a man known to give up lightly. He was convinced that MLK was a ‘Communist’, and that his activities were subversive to America’s interests. He got permission all the way from the Attorney General’s office to tap his phone, and he had people snooping into all nooks and crannies of his life, searching for incriminating materials that he could use to destroy him. In the process, he got evidence of his dallying with women outside of his marriage, which he threatened to disclose. A one time, he wrote him an anonymous letter, apparently recommending that he commit suicide. To the end, he continued to hound him.
Was J Edgar Hoover, in fact, the author of that end? Or was it someone else, who hated the black man even more?
Martin Luther King Junior was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929 to Reverend Martin Luther King Senior and Alberta Williams King. He was an active, energetic youth who sang in the Church Choir. He was very sensitive to the hurts and insults that were the routine fare of life in the South in America in those times. He suffered from Depression from an early age.
At the age of twelve years, he tried to kill himself by jumping out of a window in the second story of a building. This was shortly after the death of his grandmother, for which he somehow blamed himself.
Several experiences of racial discrimination and insulting behavior in his youth created a deep resentment within him, and a sense that this was not the way he wanted to go through life. An example was one day when he and his teacher were coming back from an oratorical competition in Dublin, Georgia. Martin had won first prize in the competition, and was understandably elated. The excitement of triumph was immediately punctured in the bus as the driver ordered teacher and student to stand up from their seats so that white passengers could take the seats. The young man was about to protest, but his teacher quickly hushed him up, reminding him that he would be breaking the law if he did not comply. His later recollection of the incident was that ‘I was the angriest I have ever been in my life’.
At the age of eighteen years, he entered the Christian Ministry, reasoning that the Church provided him with an avenue to satisfy ‘an inner urge to serve humanity’. He was, of course, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.
In 1957, he joined forces with some other Ministers –including Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttleworth, and Joseph Lowery to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The intention was to garner the moral force and organizing influence of the black Church to organize non-violent protests to advance rights of African-Americans. He was to lead the movement until the moment of his death.
A major focus of Martin’s fights in the early days was the attack the ‘Jim Crow’ laws which underpinned racial segregation in the South. He organized marches for blacks’ rights to vote, for desegregation, for labour rights, and for other Civil Rights. These activities contributed in no small measure to the passing of such laws as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
He had become quite well known – not only in the black community, but all across America, and even internationally. One of the early high points of his activism-laden life was leading the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. This was a campaign against the policy of racial segregation on the public bus system of Montgomery, Alabama. It was triggered off when a black seamstress, Rosa Parks, was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on the bus to a white person. The boycott started on December 5, 1955 and was to last for one year and two weeks. During the period, African-Americans boycotted the city’s bus system and chose to suffer the long and arduous commute to their various destinations by walking, car-pooling, and a variety of other creative strategies on a daily basis. It was a long, painful and bitter struggle. Even the victory, when it finally came in the form a judgement from the Supreme Court that the bus segregation edict was unconstitutional, proved, in the short term, only a mixed blessing for the black people of Montgomery. They had become internationally famous heroes for their struggle. But there was a rise in lynchings, firebombing of homes and churches, and other violent activities directed against black people by white racists. Even Rosa Parks had to leave Montgomery due to death threats and blacklisting by potential employers. It was a famous victory, in the short term something of a pyrrhic victory.
There would be other battles. They were not all met with immediate success. In 1962, MLK led a struggle for desegregation and voters’ rights in Albany, Georgia. This was done in a coalition known as the Albany Movement. It struggled against racial segregation in Southern Georgia. Public spaces were segregated, and the segregation was brutally enforced by ‘law’. In the event the campaign proved to be of limited success, and things continued pretty much as they always had.
The high-point of his life was the organization of the March on Washington, in 1963. Its declared purpose was to advocate for civil and economic rights for African Americans, and all disadvantaged people in America. He was working with an alliance of civil rights, labour and religious organisations. With an estimated participation of 250,000 marchers, about three quarters of whom were black, it was one of the largest movements for human rights in the history of the United States of America.
It was at this march that King, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, made his powerful ‘I have a Dream’ speech.
In 1964, Martin Luther King Junior achieved a new level of international acclaim when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. In his citation, it would be stated that the recognition was for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance.
He was not done. A year after the Nobel, he was helping to organize the Selma to Montgomery marches.
He expanded his focus to include housing segregation, and even eventually the big ogre of Poverty among America’s underclass. He also became more vocal in his opposition to the Vietnam War.
His rapidly expanding scope for confrontation with the nation’s establishment became a major worry, even to liberally minded people who were inclined to support black Civil Rights. His anti-war advocacy drew condemnation from erstwhile supporters, such as the evangelist Billy Graham.
On the other hand, more radical black activists such as Malcolm X derided his nonviolent tactics, claiming he was not going to lead the black people anywhere, and was only giving them an illusory sense of progress with a few token ‘gains’ thrown his way by the white oppressor.
It was all going at breakneck speed, and many people, including King himself, developed a sense of foreboding, a sense that it was all going to end badly, one way or another.
And indeed it did, on that evening in Memphis, Tennessee when the bullet found MLK’s neck, penetrated his spine, and came to rest in his shoulder.
He was the greatest symbol of struggle against oppression in modern American History, and one of the greatest in the world. He had become a powerful symbol for Civil Rights all across the world. When he died, many people everywhere felt the world had suffered a catastrophic loss.
He has a national holiday in his name now, and several streets and structures in America and elsewhere are named after him. As a person, his legacy, and the symbolism of his name, are assured, seemingly for all time.
Several tributes have been paid, and continue to be paid, the MLK. The most compelling – in your mind, is in a video of the enigmatic Jazz Singer Nina Simone, playing her music to a mixed audience in a European city. It is a tight, intimate ambiance, the sort you get only at Ronnie Scotts and a few of the best jazz clubs in the world.
She is singing her song, title ‘WHY?’
…Once upon this planet Earth
Lived a man humble and wise
Preaching love and freedom for his fellow man…
Turn the other cheek, he preached
Love thy neighbor was his creed…
Pain, Humiliation he did not dread…
With his Bible at his side
From his foes he did not hide…
It’s hard to think that this great man is dead…
Are they men or are they beasts…
What do they hope ever to gain…
Is it too late for us all…
Did Martin Luther King just die in vain…
Folks you’d better stop and think
Are we headed for the brink…
What’s going to happen now
That the king of love is dead…
The enduring image you have of the scene is of a black man sitting in the audience, tapping his feet with the rest to the compelling rhythm. His face carries a look of deep absorption. Tears are coursing down his cheeks.
An opinion piece by Femi Olugbile