By Bill Wylie-Kellermann
I remember precisely where I was when I got the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination. It was my freshman year in college, a midwestern liberal arts school, and I’d just walked into the lounge of my dormitory when a bulletin broke into regular TV programing. The lone other student, whose face and name I mercifully do not recall, was seated high on the back of an overstuffed black leather chair. He muttered, “Somebody finally got that n****r.” I remember running the length of hall to the pay phone booth and calling my folks in Detroit, weeping into the receiver. In those tears, something shifted in me vocationally that day which bears on who I am.
One emblem of that, which may seem trivial though really not, was a decision to quit football. As a college freshman I was starting as a defensive cornerback but was heir-apparent to an All-Conference wide receiver who would graduate the following month. But Dr. King’s assassination focused my heart in a new way. The freedom struggle was becoming a movement for economic justice and the war in SE Asia was in full fury. The time and energy which football demanded seemed suddenly itself more trivial, a priority misplaced. It paled before history. I remember the difficulty it took to explain to my coach, but more vividly I recall sitting at a table before a gathering in the student union (somehow arranged by the college chaplain) and, again in tears, testifying to the turn of my heart.
In Christian theology it is often asked, “Why did Jesus die?” but seldom wondered, “Why was Jesus killed?” If we ask that of Dr. King, the answer would have to pass through his public opposition to the war in Vietnam. It would need to be traced in part to his speech at Riverside Church, fifty one years ago today, exactly one year before his death. That address, variously called “Beyond Vietnam” or “Breaking the Silence,” was a courageous deed. A lot of people urged him to keep silent, not to take this public stand – other civil rights leaders among them, like the Urban League folks. His own board at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (except for James Bevel) said: don’t do it. Don’t jeopardize foundation funding, don’t diffuse the focus. Never mind complaints of his erstwhile political ally, Lyndon Johnson who was in trouble over the war, or the darker threats of J. Edgar Hoover. Don’t look deeper, they all said. And above all, don’t go deeper. But he did. And did so knowing all he was risking. In a sense he entered the pulpit of that church free to die. No wonder he called it a “vocation of agony.” Indeed, in the same season he preached that a person who had not discovered what they were willing to die for, knew neither what they were living for.
The answer to why he was killed must also pass through his reasons for being in Memphis. He was building the Poor People’s Campaign, that economic justice movement, a true revolution of values. Supporting the sanitation strikers was a concrete element of that building. Again he was clear about the threat this represented to established order, which is to say, he counted the cost, understood the risks. The night before, at Mason Temple, he famously confessed, “Like anybody I would like to live a long life…but I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will…I may not get there with you, but I want you to know that we as a people will get to the promised land.”
It is a good and right thing that King’s birthday is a national holiday. However, in Christian tradition, it is a person’s day of death, the day of their martyrdom, the day of crossing over to God, which is marked as a feast day in the church tradition. For Dr. King that would be this day of his state assassination. This is the day, for me, that still pierces my heart and provokes my vocation. It is a feast of freedom, even to die, and so to live.