By Dr. Gary S. Smith
Fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed when he stepped from his second-floor hotel room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, to speak to Southern Christian Leadership Conference colleagues standing in the parking lot below. An assassin’s bullet ended the life of the 39-year-old activist who had helped advance the cause of African-American rights more in 14 years than it had progressed in the previous 350 years.
King’s life and legacy are remarkable. His shrewd strategy of non-violent protest, charismatic personality, electrifying speaking ability, and soaring words mobilized the black community, challenged centuries of oppression, and changed America. Inspired by his faith, the Baptist minister helped direct the Montgomery Bus boycott initiated by Rosa Parks in 1955, helped found and led the SCLC, organized numerous marches and sit-ins, and penned five books. His 1963 “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream” speech delivered to 250,000 people at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in August 1963 detailed the plight of America’s blacks and helped reduced racial discrimination. His sermon “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” preached at the Mason Temple in Memphis, the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, the night before his death ranks with John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” and Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” as among America’s most famous.
King had initially planned to speak at Williston Senior High School in Wilmington, N.C., on April 4 to support Reginald Hawkins, a dentist and civil rights advocate, who was the first African-American gubernatorial candidate in the state’s history. King then planned to stump in other North Carolina cities on Hawkins’ behalf. Instead King decided to stay in Memphis to support the strike of predominantly black sanitation workers who were protesting their low wages and deplorable working conditions. There he declared in his April 3 sermon, perhaps having a premonition of his death, and paraphrasing Moses, “[God has] allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you.”
On April 5, about 200 black Williston students peacefully marched to the downtown New Hanover County Courthouse to hold a prayer service in memory of King. Another group of students went to nearby New Hanover High School to demand that the white school’s American flag be lowered to half-mast.
Enraged by King’s murder, blacks throughout the nation rioted. Violence erupted in more than 100 cities, killing 40 people and causing extensive property damage. One hundred thousand soldiers and national guardsmen joined local police to battle arsonists, looters, and snipers; thousands of people were arrested.
President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed a national day of mourning on April 7. In response to King’s death, many schools, museums, public libraries, and businesses closed and the Academy Awards ceremony scheduled for April 8 and numerous sporting events were postponed. On April 8, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, her three oldest children, movie stars, religious leaders, and thousands of other Americans marched in Memphis to honor the slain activist and support the sanitation workers.
King’s funeral service, held the next day at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where both King and his father served as ministers, was attended by many prominent politicians and civil rights leaders, including Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ralph Bunche. Benjamin Mays, the president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, from which King had graduated, gave the eulogy, declaring that King “would probably say” that “there was no greater cause to die for than ﬁghting to get a just wage for garbage collectors.” After the service, more than 100,000 mourners followed two mules as they pulled King’s cofﬁn on an old farm wagon through the streets of Atlanta.
King’s accomplishments are well known. King’s inspiring books, mesmerizing speeches, creative leadership of the SCLC, and direction of the civil rights movement won him the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize (the youngest recipient to that date). His work also helped pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibited racial segregation in employment, schools, and public accommodations and mandated that voter-registration requirements be applied equally to all races.
What is less remembered about King is that his Christian convictions inspired his civil rights activism. The Baptist pastor’s faith played the pivotal role in his fervent quest for political and social change. “Before I was a civil rights leader,” King declared in a sermon, “I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling” and it “remains my greatest commitment.” Everything “I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry.”
King was especially motivated by the example of Jesus’ selfless love and his charge to love others as we love ourselves. In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, King asserted, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” As we remember King’s life and contributions and continue to combat racism, poverty, and violence, may we pray that truth and love prevail.
—Dr. Gary Scott Smith is the retired chair of the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and politics with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of "Suffer the Children" (2017), "Religion in the Oval Office" (Oxford University Press, 2015), “Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009), "Religion in the Oval Office" and “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011).