One Night in April

Category: Growing Up

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., American clergyman and civil rights leader, was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.

I remember that day well. My family was waiting to take a flight from the Indianapolis airport to Florida for spring break. The flight was delayed, and—in a pre-online world—word spread slowly about King’s assassination. The passenger waiting area filled with apprehension as many people worried about what this meant, and what would happen next.

What we didn’t know is that, elsewhere in Indianapolis, U.S. senator and presidential candidate Robert F. "Bobby" Kennedy was addressing a potentially hostile, mostly black audience in an inner city park. The campaign stop was previously arranged, and Kennedy insisted on making an appearance—against the vehement protests of numerous local officials. He went on to give one of his most famous speeches.

Kennedy's speech in Indianapolis the evening of April 4, 1968

[His extemporaneous remarks, both historic and timeless, are quoted here in full:]

Ladies and Gentlemen: I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some very sad news for all of you—Could you lower those signs, please?—I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news 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 was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's 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 evidently is that there were white people who were responsible—you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization—black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also 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 get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poem, my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

Even 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 and lawlessness, but is 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 whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King—yeah, it's true—but more importantly 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. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's 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 that 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 country and for our people.

Thank you very much. 

Gandhi

It is important to remember Dr. King’s singular and enlightened focus on nonviolence. He drew this inspiration from a man named Gandhi. Mahātmā Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869 - 1948) was an Indian activist who was the leader of the Indian independence movement against British rule. Employing nonviolent civil disobedience, Gandhi led India to independence and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. [Wikipedia]

King emphasized nonviolence for two reasons. He believed violence could not legitimately serve the cause of social justice. But just as important, he knew from Gandhi’s experience that violence hardens prejudices and divides people. Nonviolence, on the other hand, exposes evil in the brightest light—and creates empathy rather than distrust. Even the hardest hearts could not ignore the injustice of brutality against black people simply because they wanted equal rights. Indeed, King’s own death became the most poignant shame of America’s racial animus.

Following King’s assassination, violence erupted around the nation. But not in Indianapolis—perhaps because Bobby Kennedy reminded a community in pain what King’s life represented.

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church

Just as in Gandhi’s day, and in King’s, change will only come today when those most aggrieved confront injustice with the healing power of nonviolent love. The best example of this can be found in the extraordinary forgiveness expressed by those who lost loved ones during a hateful attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, on the evening of June 17, 2015.

The victims were at a prayer meeting when the shooting occurred. Dylann Roof, an avowed white racist, opened fire and killed nine people, all black. The oldest victim was 87; the youngest was 26. They included a library manager, a track and field coach and a state senator, Clementa Pinckney, who also served as senior pastor at the church. [The Washington Post]

From the relatives’ statements at Roof’s initial hearing [Chicago Tribune]:

—Felecia Sanders survived the Wednesday night attack by pretending to be dead, but lost her son: "Tywanza was my hero," Sanders said. "We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts ... and I'll never be the same."

—Anthony Thompson, whose relative Myra Thompson was killed: "I forgive you, my family forgives you," he said. "We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. ... Do that and you'll be better off than you are right now."

 —Alana Simmons, who lost her grandfather, the Rev. Daniel Simmons: "Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof. Everyone's plea for your soul is proof they lived in love and their legacies will live in love, so hate won't win," she said.

From darkness to light. From hate to love.

I never had a chance to see Dr. King in person. But I have to think he’d be pleased by the noble words of those most wounded by hate. As he himself said:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.