Martin Luther King, Jr. was a social activist and Baptist minister who played a key role in the American civil rights movement. He was assassinated in Memphis, TN on April 4, 1968.
It is April 4, 1968, and I am not quite 12 years old. I am attending some kind of function requiring carpooling, and two church ladies pick us up. My friends and I pack ourselves into the back seat and barely listen as the adults are talking, but one lady says, “Well, what did they expect? You can’t keep saying things like he was saying and not expect to get killed.” Since they are my Sunday School teachers, I think they are talking about Jesus, and go back to chattering about whatever it is that sixth-grade girls in 1968 were chattering about.
Later on that day I hear more about the assassination of Martin Luther King. I have heard that name, of course, but I am not sure who he is or what he did wrong. That evening we are watching the news, and Robert Kennedy is on top of a truck talking to black people in a big city, trying to persuade them to be non-violent. He spontaneously quotes a Greek poet I’ve never heard of, but I am impressed. He sounds like courage and compassion ought to sound. And I want to know more about this man who wasn’t Jesus but who also stirred things up, and who was killed for it, right in my own country. Somehow in the next few days I find a copy of King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I have a memory of reading it in an old copy of the Readers Digest Magazine, but surely that cannot be right? Anyway, I have been raised in a family that is at church every time the church doors are open, but I have never read such powerful and prophetic religious words. I read it again and again, and I memorize some passages. It will take me a long time to find out that I will never again be satisfied with a Christianity that doesn’t include a strong measure of social justice.
What memories do you have of this event? How did the people in your life react to the news?