In their song, Pride (In the Name of Love), U2 front man, Bono, sings about “early morning April 4 / shots ring out in a Memphis sky.” While getting the date, location, and outcome correct, Bono set the event in the wrong part of the day. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his companions were getting ready to head to supper that April 4 evening when the shots rang out, cutting short a life of complexity and promise.
Why is it that we get caught in the snapshot of death? Homer’s Iliad captures the epic nature of the Greek struggle with Troy, but in the end the writer framed the poem in terms of Achille’s death. The Gospels tell about Jesus of Nazareth and a life well lived, but their orientation is to his death. While perhaps more human than the heroes and m
essiahs, Martin Luther King, Jr. remains trapped in his death, and even then the trap is about civil rights victories instead of the fact that he is in Memphis to bring attention to striking santitation workers. He had turned late in his life to focus on issues that would make most Americans uncomfortable (i.e., Vietnam and “responsible militant action”). In fact, King had felt the sting of criticism during his life as he made these calculated moves. In death, however, we were allowed enshrine King in “the Dream.”
I have been thinking a lot about another April 4—this one in 1967. King raised objection to the broader American involvement in Vietnam early in 1965. Some of my previous research suggests that he had already turned to US involvement in Vietnam as a distraction to progress made in civil rights work as early as 1963. King, however, refused to say publicly what he had been thinking privately for more than two years: the war in Vietnam harmed the US both abroad and at home. By April of 1967, however, he refused to remain silent any longer. On April 4 at the meeting of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam held at Riverside Church in NYC, King gave a public denunciation of US involvement and the Johnson administration’s failure to carry out the promises of civil right legislation. “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” drafted initially by Vincent Harding, elevated the war in Vietnam to the level of civil rights protests. As activists understood in the civil rights campaign, King’s presence brought a larger spotlight to an issue. Anti-war activists had tried to bring King into the fray but had not been able to given the disposition within Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to see the war as a tangential target at best and a sure way to bring in the FBI at worst (the FBI’s presence was already there). On the day, one year before his death, the Nobel Peace laureate aligned his moral vision with American interests abroad and he would be silent no longer.
In two years, we will mark April 4 as the fiftieth anniversary of King’s death. For me, next year is the more important marker. Almost fifty years ago, King sided with the poor and the oppressed both at home and abroad. Siding with striking workers and anti-war demonstrators, King had forged a way ahead that put him on a collision course with an anti-union and pro-military sentiment that has defined the US for most of the past thirty years. Enshrined in the “Dream,” powerful and eloquent as it is, means that we have yet to understand fully the vision of King’s beloved community.