Reflections on the 55th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination

Memorial pin with quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 1968.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture


On April 3, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the striking sanitation workers at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee.  These are the last words of that speech:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it 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 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.”


These were Dr. King’s last public words.  He was assassinated the following day, April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel.  Fifty-five years ago today.


In his book April 4, 1968 (Basic Books, 2008),  sociologist Michael Eric Dyson reflects on the meaning of this day.

“[N]ow 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.”


In June 1967, ten months before his murder, Dr. King published his last book:   Where Do We Go From Here:   Chaos or Community?   Today, as we remember the 55th anniversary of Dr. King’s death, we must address the most important question of his life.


Where do we go from here? 


We must overcome racism, poverty and militarism, as Dr. King demanded of us.  And we must re-dedicate ourselves to ending the epidemic of gun violence that took Dr. King’s life and the lives of countless others in the decades since.


Dr. Clarence B. Jones was Dr. King’s personal lawyer, strategic advisor, and draft speechwriter.   He was also Dr. King’s close friend and confidante.  Today, USA Today published an op-ed by Dr. Jones urging us to end the scourge of gun violence in America (“My friend, Martin Luther King, was assassinated 55 years ago. Why do we still allow gun violence?”) Here are some excerpts from Dr. Jones’s memorial plea:


My first personal involvement with gun violence occurred 55 years ago on April 4. My friend, mentor and confidante, Martin Luther King Jr., was shot down outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.


To remember Dr. King on the anniversary of his assassination is to ask: What nonviolent actions must be taken to force change, and who should lead those actions? Politicians will only do what they are made to do by the strongest forces.


After Martin and Robert F. Kennedy were gunned down in 1968, Congress yielded to popular demand and passed the Gun Control Act, which defined certain groups of people (like felons) who would be barred from possessing firearms.


But in the decades since, with only a few exceptions, the voices of the gun lobby and Second Amendment absolutists have been the loudest, framing the debate and stifling progress…


In Dr. King’s memory, I call on religious and lay leaders to step up. Give us the laws we need to stem the terrible tide of bloodshed.


Close the loopholes in the background check system that make it all too easy for criminals to get guns. Ban weapons of war such as the AR-15-style rifles and high-capacity magazines – no civilian should have them. Crack down on the gun traffickers who flood our streets with semiautomatic handguns, which account for most of the bloodshed in the inner-city killing fields. Get rid of the shameful shield Congress erected to protect gun manufacturers from liability for the damage their products do. Rein in 3D-printed guns and “ghost guns” that criminals can use without being traced.


Equally important, give poor kids of color hope and a vision for the future that does not come through a gun sight. We need training and jobs programs for our at-risk youth. We need options for better mental health care and other underfunded social programs.


You can read Dr. Jones’s entire USA Today op-ed here.


In a short essay published today in Jacobin (“55 Years After MLK’s Death, His Radical Vision Should Galvanize Our Struggles Today”), labor and civil rights historian Michael K. Honey, remembers that the Black sanitation workers on strike in Memphis won their struggle for union representation in the weeks following Dr. King’s assassination.

“’All labor has dignity,’ King told striking sanitation workers in 1968. “Either we go up together or we go down together.” That remains true today. Republicans may try to outlaw black history and unions with right-to-work laws (they provide “no rights and no work,” as King said). But racists and reactionaries can’t outlaw hope. As King prophesied in his last words, ‘I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the promised land.'”


In memory of Dr. King, we must follow the path he identified for us.


We must use nonviolence to overcome the chaos and violence of American society, and we must take courageous action to build the Beloved Community together.


Jonathan D. Greenberg

Life magazine (Vol. 64, No. 16), April 19, 1968.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture