Our Opinion: MLK's message for our times

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In Martin Luther King Jr.'s final public speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated, the emotion in his eyes and his voice as he closes his address seem to confirm at least a premonition on his part that his life was in danger.

He said: "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!"

It's a powerful and painful moment in our history.

But there's so much more to that speech than what King might have known or sensed about the end of his life. Today, on the 50th anniversary of his death, it's worth delving into that address in greater detail and understanding why King was in Memphis, and why that message still resonates.

King also told his audience this: "Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation."

Fifty years later, we face the same issues that drove King's ministry: racism, social injustice, economic inequality and segregation, to name a few. As was the case in 1968, it often seems that we are a nation divided.

But we are also reminded that even though King faced threats on his life, he remained determined to do what was right, regardless of cost, to make his country a better place. He touched on that message time and again as a leader of the civil rights movement. It puts to shame our current Congressional leaders, whose principles are predicated upon campaign donations and my-party-right-or-wrong blind loyalty, and little else.

King had faced threats and attacks on his life before, and he knew that opposing the war in Vietnam — which he had done exactly a year before, on April 4, 1967, at New York's Riverside Church — would make powerful enemies and alienate supporters. But King pursued that path anyway, because he knew it to be right, as he had done with the civil rights movement.

"Something is happening in our world," King said, explaining he was happy to live in the 20th century despite all its problems. "The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: 'We want to be free.'"

"And another reason that I'm happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn't force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today."

But he reminded the audience that non-violence did not equal weakness. "We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God's world," he said.

"And that's all this whole thing is about. We aren't engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying — We are saying that we are God's children. And that we are God's children, we don't have to live like we are forced to live."

The Memphis sanitation strike, over dangerous working conditions and low pay, had quickly turned ugly as Mayor Henry Loeb took a hard line against the striking workers and called in replacements. Police used tear gas, night sticks and gunfire to quell disturbances.

King, then leading the Poor People's Campaign, came to Memphis and called for a game plan of non-violence and unity. He pointed out that media coverage of the strike had focused on broken windows, rather than on the city's hardball dealings with the striking workers. And he reminded his audience that non-violence had triumphed before.

"We aren't going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our non-violent movement in disarming police forces; they don't know what to do. I've seen them so often," King said. "I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there, we would move out of the 16th Street Baptist Church day after day; by the hundreds we would move out. And Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth, and they did come; but we just went before the dogs singing, 'Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around.'"

The city had obtained an injunction to prevent union demonstrations, and King pledged to defy it. And here, his words on freedom of speech ring as true for us as they did for the people of Memphis in April of 1968.

"Now about injunctions: We have an injunction and we're going into court tomorrow morning to fight this illegal, unconstitutional injunction. All we say to America is, 'Be true to what you said on paper.' If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn't committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren't going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren't going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on."

Fifty years later, there are people in this country still moving forward with the conviction that King displayed throughout his public life. But it can't be a spectator sport for the rest of us — not if we ever want to be the country he thought we could be.

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