Martin Luther King's casket, borne on a mule-drawn cart, moves through Atlanta

Martin Luther King's casket, borne on a mule-drawn cart, moves through Atlanta

(Photo by Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)

To Tame the Savageness Of Man: We Honor You, Sir

Mournfully - and astoundingly for those of us who so clearly remember it - we mark the 56th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on a Memphis motel balcony in what is a dark America still riven by the same hate that killed him, and still woefully failing to fulfill his goal of racial equity. Robert Kennedy, the long-ago night of King's death: "It is perhaps well to ask what kind of nation we are, and what direction we want to move in."

Civil rights "trailblazer, prophet, and champion of justice," King was struck down at just 39 by a single bullet to the neck on April 4, 1968. He had come to Memphis the day before to help striking sanitation workers rally for better wages and safer working conditions. The night of April 3, speaking extemporaneously to an overflow crowd at the Mason Temple, he gave what became his prophetic final speech, urging his audience, "We've got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. "We've got some difficult days ahead," he warned. "But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop...And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

The next evening, as King stood on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel, he was fatally wounded by a rifle fired from a rooming house across the street; he lost consciousness and was pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Hospital about an hour later. In one later book account, when his "grieving disciples" - Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and several others - left the hospital, "back they went to Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel." It was both a grim spot to reconvene, with King's blood still staining the balcony cement, and an apt place to mourn with its remnants of his last day on earth - his attaché case, a crumpled white shirt, a half-filled Styrofoam coffee cup, his Bible. In their anguish, they brooded: What would happen to their movement, who could take King's place, how could they help stop the rioting that had swiftly broken out at the news, "the violent antithesis of everything for which King had stood."

To millions of black Americans, King represented their hopes for the commitment of white America to racial equality. To them, the next day's New York Times obituary read, King was "the prophet of their crusade for racial equality, their voice of anguish, their eloquence in humiliation, their battle cry for human dignity...He forged for them the weapons of nonviolence that withstood and blunted the ferocity of segregation." Said Stokely Carmichael, "When (America) killed Dr. King, (she) killed the one man of our race that this country’s older generation, the militants and the revolutionaries, and the masses of black people would still listen to." In the motel room that night, though, King's comrades found "consolation in a 19-inch Philco Starlite television set" where they saw former Attorney General and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy announce the death to a mostly black crowd in Indianapolis.

One account describes that 24 hours as "a tragic, extraordinary moment in American history" when two of the nation's most visible leaders, one black, one white, each offered "elegant statements of belief" - King, his final night before, Kennedy, coincidentally campaigning as the news hit and word of the riots began to spread. In his book The Promise and the Dream, David Margolick describes a "wary" relationship between two men often "shadow-boxing," "not pals" - the racial and cultural divide was too broad - but allies. Said the ever-generous John Lewis, who worked with both, "They were friends and didn’t even know they were friends." Kennedy's staff tried to dissuade him from speaking to the crowd - too politically and literally dangerous - but Kennedy was newly at home and welcome in the black community, and so stubborn he liked to echo press criticism by calling himself “Senator Ruthless."

He spoke soon after King was declared dead; as audio starts, you hear him ask aides, "Do they know about Martin Luther King?" Standing on the back of a flatbed truck, wrapped in his big brother’s old overcoat, he spoke for seven minutes; he held some notes, glanced briefly at them, then ignored them. "I have bad news for you," he told the crowd in the city's worst neighborhood. "Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight." Shrieks from the crowd. Kennedy calmly went on. "(King) dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort," he said. "In this difficult time, (it) is perhaps well to ask what kind of nation we are and what direction we want to move in." "For those of you who are black," he said, they may wish to move toward bitterness, hate, revenge; or they could try to understand, have compassion and move past "the injustice of such an act."

Incongruously - impossibly, in today's dumbed-down America - he summoned "my favorite poet Aeschylus," the ancient Greek often deemed the father of tragedy: "Even in our sleep, pain which we cannot forget falls drop by drop from the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God." What America needed was not division, hatred, violence, but "love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black." Silence from the crowd; he stands, unsure. Then, a slow rise of applause. Aeschylus, again. "Let us 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," he said. "Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and our people."

To King's grieving allies watching from the Lorraine Motel, "Bobby Kennedy’s was the only voice we identified with that night - we were grateful he was out there." In that fraught moment, said Andrew Young, "We wanted to get on television and tell people not to fight, not to burn down the get the message out 'this is not what Dr. King would have you doing,' but the press didn't want to talk to us." In the next days, violence erupted in over 125 American cities across 29 states; nearly 50,000 federal troops occupied urban areas, with 40 deaths, many arrests and injuries, vast property damage. But Indianapolis stayed calm. For many, it seemed Kennedy had "picked up (King's) torch," Young said, but they also somehow questioned "how long he would get to hold it." Two months later, after winning the California primary on June 5, Kennedy was shot and killed in the kitchen of a Los Angeles hotel.

This week, marking the mournful anniversary, members of the King family still sought to address RFK's decades-old, still-unrealized plea "to ask what kind of a nation we are," and then righteously act on it. "Daddy, it's been 56 years, and your presence is still dearly missed. Your words bring comfort and direction despite your absence from your earthly body," wrote daughter Bernice King. And from The King Center, "We honor you, sir." Relatives made a rare, painful trip back to Memphis and the site of King's murder, now the National Civil Rights Museum, to decry the enduring evils of racism, poverty, war and political violence he preached and fought against. In this very, very dark moment" in a right-leaning America, they said, "We are asking for us all to stand together, to walk together, to continue his work together to make real his dream of the beloved community." And may he rest in power.

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