50 years ago Dr. Martin Luther King. Was reputedly addressing a religious congregation about the need for their support of civil rights activism in their own community. Many members of the audience had serious concerns and expressed why they should not get involved. One individual stated, “we may be recognized and lose our jobs”. Another commented that the “police may become violent and we may get hurt”. Others in the audience also passionately expressed reasons why getting involved might result in pain, frustration or even possible death. After listening to these concerns for a while and attempting to respond to them as they arose, Dr. King seemingly exasperated with some in the audience loudly proclaimed, “if we are not willing to die for something, we are not fit to live!” By his own personal example, Martin Luther King was willing to die for the principles he believed in, and he did.
On April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, an assassin’s bullet took the life of Martin Luther King, the main architect and the leader of the nonviolent civil rights movement in the United States. He was 39 years old.
The murder of Martin Luther King sparked riots in Washington and more than 100 other American cities, threatening to turn a peaceful struggle of African Americans into a violent racial confrontation. Even before the tragic event, the movement seemed to be undergoing a transformation that many of King’s closest associates watched with apprehension.
By May, Stokley Carmichael (Kwame Ture), veteran of numerous voter registration drives, had established himself as the new head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the principal student organization of the civil rights movement, whose leadership was growing increasingly impatient with the gradualist strategy of Martin Luther King and his associates.
In a speech at Greenwood, Mississippi, Carmichael raised a call for “Black Power.” Where people like Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King had sought integration, Carmichael instead sought separation. Integration, he said, was “an insidious subterfuge, for the maintenance of white supremacy.”
Meanwhile, the Black Panther Party (some accounts trace the name to a visual emblem for illiterate voters used in an Alabama voter registration drive), founded in Oakland, California, in October 1966 by activists Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, employed armed members -- “Panthers” -- to shadow police officers who, they believed, unfairly targeted blacks.
While the party briefly enjoyed a measure of popularity, particularly through its social services programs, armed altercations with local police resulted in the death or jailing of prominent Panthers, turned many Americans against its violent ways, and fragmented the Panther movement. It petered out in a maze of factionalism and mutual recriminations.
Many feared, however, that King’s assassination would increase the influence of militant elements within the movement. At that time, some questioned King’s life work. But the “Promised Land” that King described was in many ways far closer than it seemed during the riots of April 1968.
I encourage you to think about the things in your life that are worth living for. I have touched upon a few reasons in this note. Your integrity tells the world what you are. Your service tells the world who you are. Finally, your zest for life tells the world why you are here. So, let me ask you: what are YOU willing to die for? Are there meaningful values and goals in your life that would meet such a test? As a way of celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, please consider these life-affirming questions as you ponder YOUR life.
Remember, the great possessions of life are not simply those things we discover on the outside, but what we also discover and develop within.