A Day that Directly Confronts the Sorrows and Death We Must Forever Negotiate

KingFrom the preface to Michael Eric Dyson’s April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Death and How It Changed America (2008):

When Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered, I was a nine-year-old school boy. I had no idea who he was, had never heard his name or seen him in action. Just as technology had allowed him to speak at his own funeral, it offered me my first glimpse of King’s oratorical magic. Like so many folk born after he died, I first met King on television. I was sitting on the living room floor of my inner city Detroit home. “Martin Luther King, Jr., has just been shot in Memphis, Tennessee,” the newsman announced, interrupting whatever program we were watching. My father sat behind me in his favorite chair. He was barely able to utter “humph.” It was one of those compressed sighs that held back far more pain than it let loose. It came from deep inside his body, an involuntary reflex like somebody had punched him in the gut…

After King’s death, I hungered to know him. I haunted libraries in search of biographies, sent off for recordings of his speeches, talked to teachers about his life. I learned that he was a man of peace and love. I also got scared: if King could be murdered for seeking to heal the nation’s racial fractures, then all black men might be vulnerable. I thought to myself: “If the killed him, and he didn’t want to harm anybody, then they could kill me too.” For more than a year, I couldn’t stand in front of the upstairs bathroom sink because a door with a window opened onto a small balcony. I feared that I, too, might be taken out. The bullet that shattered King’s jaw lodged fragments of fear deep inside my psyche…

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. King’s memory continues to call us forward out of our creature comforts into the sacrifices of body and spirit that he routinely made. If we hear again his voice, and listen once more to his enduring faith, even as he confronts death, death just might successfully conquer the death and grief in our own souls and in our nation. And we might just resurrect the hope we need to inch even closer to the Promised Land he saw.

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