By Josh Resnek
Martin Luther King moved the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of people around the world when he was alive.
MLK has achieved a wider significance in death.
His triumphs over darkness for his people, for all people, stand as a historical monument to the violent era in which he lived and came into prominence.
His leadership of the non-violent movement to achieve racial equality and justice provided him one of the most powerful political and social platforms of the era.
He created a huge following.
Those of us old enough to recall him, when he was young, when we were young all instantly recognized his strong voice and his inflection, that of a Southern preacher singing the words that came out of him.
He was spiritual. He was hopeful. He set out on a path that brought him fame and applause as a young man.
He was one of the best known people on the earth when I was growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
He cut quite a figure at that time.
He was a giant, if you want to know.
He did things that only a handful of men have done.
He could write. He could orate. He could captivate the minds of men and women.
“Free at last. Free at last. Thank God I’m free at last,” is how he put it in his historic Mountaintop Speech delivered in Washington DC before 250,000 marchers in 1964.
I admired then, and I admire today, how MLK faced hate and injustice, violence and overt racism
He hit it head on every time.
He was beaten, bullied, arrested, taken to court, and threatened with death multiple times until his assassination in 1968.
When America found out MLK was dead, America located itself in front of their television sets. We all knew this was very bad. MLK’s assassination marked a low point in this chaotic and violent era of our nation’s history. It felt as though the country could ignite in violence – and in many places, it did.
On April 4, 1968 I was playing cards with college friends in my dorm rec room in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I don’t recall exactly what time but it was evening.
I was 18.
I learned of King’s death from the television news in the rec room.
I was shocked. The nation was shocked. The world convulsed just a bit.
This was a hold your breath moment for the nation.
Vietnam was making everyone crazy. Racism was eating the nation alive. Remember, these were the Nixon years. Race riots had broken out in all our great cities. When word of MLK’s death spread, it was an electric time, an enigmatical, existential moment in the nation’s history. We were a year away from landing on the moon.
King’s death was riveting for Blacks and whites. His death and the chase for his murderer captivated the nation. MLK’s followers to a person understood his death. Nothing would be the same without him. Men like MLK don’t come along very often.
On the night MLK died, Robert Kennedy was running for president. His candidacy had excited the nation. His anti-war speeches electrified the anti-war Democratic forces. Kennedy was in tune with the social revolution.
His comments concerning MLK’s death stand as a big moment in the history of this tragic yet astounding era.
Read what Robert Kennedy said from Minneapolis when he heard the news. It relates exactly where we were at and who and what we lost with the assassination of MLK. Kennedy fills in the blanks about MLK’s loss, his influence and the state of the nation:
“I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.
In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black–considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible–you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization–black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.
Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.
For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.
So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that’s true, but more impor- tantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love–a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.
We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.
But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.
Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our coun- try and for our people.”
RFK’s words will go down in the ages as one of the great moments of 1968. Several months later, Kennedy would be assassinated
Martin Luther King was a giant in an age of giants and empires and competing social and racial interests born of slavery.
He was out to change all of that…and he did. That’s how I will always view MLK.
Josh Resnek is the publisher and editor of the Leader Herald.