Forty-four years ago a racist with a rifle assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
That was the real new year’s day for that year I look back on and wonder, could all of it really have happened? I know it did because 1968 started the shaking of the basic religious, political and social conventions and changed my little world forever. I was in the spring of eighth grade at the Immaculate Conception School in Everett, MA. By the time we graduated in June haters had murdered Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Of course we had no clue of what this might mean. We did live in a town that saw a lot of violent firearm deaths in the 1960’s. The Irish-Italian mob battles left a share in Everett of men who gave their last full measure of devotion…to racketeering. But we did not know then that the political and social violence of ’68 would have meaning for us far beyond that of this local criminal blood-letting.
I have the class graduation photo still. In the back row in our jackets, white shirts and ties stood, among others, kids named Paul Walsh, Joe Curnane, Billy Fitzpatrick, Vinny Kilcommons, Steve Gill and Jim Jordan. In front of us and flanking our pastor, Monsignor Hartigan, were the girls such as Rosemary McCormack, Susan Lawlor, Marie Correia and the boys like Tommy Mullins, Tommy Montenero and Neil Guarino who would tower over me by the time we reached 18. We all looked as innocent of the coming quake as I in fact was.
In the summer of ’68 would come more riots in rigorously segregated urban neighborhoods and in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention. I can remember standing up at a CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) meeting in the IC Parish Hall that summer and saying that if the protestors in Chicago did not want to get hurt they should stay away from the protest sites.
But the ground surely had started shaking. Institutions are weakest at the fault lines of their lies and hypocrisies. A lot of what I believed gave way to the shocks. No one gets rocked like the true believer.
Over four decades later my road had taken me to Memphis to a meeting of Black Protestant evangelical ministers working on ways to reduce the killing among young Black men. I was there with and at the invitation of Rev. Eugene Rivers, one of my heroes. Later we got a tour of the city and we saw the Lorraine Motel after dark, under watery street light in a heavy rain. As you know, local leaders developed the Lorraine into a National Civil Rights Museum and preserved the place as it looked in April, 1968. The banality of evil, indeed: all it took to slay a giant were a few pennies’ worth of metals and wood, put together in the right combination and placed in the wrong hands near this ordinary-looking, 1960’s motel.
On April 4 Bobby Kennedy had 65 days left. He had been campaigning in Indiana on that Thursday evening and to him fell the task of informing a gathering of Black Indianapolis citizens about the murder of Dr. King.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,
I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some — 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 fill with — 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 — 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,
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, but we — 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.
And let’s 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.”
For video of the speech go to youtube and search “RFK Martin Luther King.”