I’ve been conflicted about the “celebration” of the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King.
On the one hand, I’ve been battling my unbelief and discouragement to maintain at least a slender hope that the commemorations would be one step—even one step—in the long journey toward reconciliation, peace, and justice.
On the other hand, it’s struck me as perversely curious to “celebrate the fiftieth anniversary” as some put it. In quite a number of such “celebrations,” one can barely find in the conference themes and slogans a mention that the fiftieth anniversary does not commemorate Dr. King’s birth or life but his murder. Dr. King was assassinated. He did not die peacefully in his sleep. He died violently and cruelly from the bullet fired from the .30-06 Remington Model 760, a bullet tearing through his cheek, breaking his jaw and vertebrae as it rifled through his spine.
James Earl Ray initially confessed to assassinating Dr. King. But he did not act alone. Many have long believed there was a literal conspiracy of Government actors, the mafia, and Memphis police. Whether or not you believe Ray acted as a patsy for these conspirators, he did not act alone. He acted with the tacit and sometimes explicit approval of white supremacists. He acted with the encouragement of a white society dedicated to the advantage of whites above all others and simultaneously the segregation, oppression, and exploitation of black people. Ray acted with the assistance of whites who suppressed their consciences. He acted with the assistance of anti-Civil Rights propagandists and white-collar country club segregationists. He acted with the assistance of a FBI COINTELPRO campaign charged with discrediting, maligning, and silencing voices of Black dissent. These parties acted in concert, in the same direction, against Dr. King and by extension the millions of African Americans hoping for some larger piece of freedom’s promise.
I’m saying the entire society killed Dr. King. This society had been slowly killing him all along. Taylor Branch, King scholar and award-winning biographer, pointed out that Dr. King at the time of his death, though only 39, had the heart of a 60-year old. He suggests, I think legitimately, that the stresses of the Civil Rights Movement and of pervasive Jim Crow hostility showed itself in the 20-year aging of Dr. King’s heart. Dr. King himself knew the slow death of white supremacy would give way to a sudden violent end. Following the assassination of President Kennedy, Dr. King commented to his wife, Coretta, “This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society.”
This is a sick society. And we kid ourselves if we think all the sickness gets healed just by time and rest. Racism, prejudice, hatred and bigotry is not a cold. It’s a cancer. It mutates. It metastasizes. And despite our protest and insistence otherwise, this sickness gets passed on in a kind of social hereditary action, sometimes unconsciously and unsuspected, sometimes systemically, and sometimes intentionally and virulently. The Civil Rights leaders standing on the balcony on that dark day pointed not only to Ray and the area where the shot was fired, but figuratively pointed to the entire country in its sinister hatred and racism.
I don’t need all white people to feel guilty about the 1950s and 60s—especially those who weren’t even alive. But I do need all of us to suspect that sin isn’t done working its way through society. I do need all my neighbors—especially my brothers and sisters in Christ—to recognize that no sin has ever been eliminated from the world and certainly not eliminated simply with the passage of time and a willingness of some people to act as if it was never there. If this country will make any significant stride toward freedom, it must have enough courage to at least make it clear that Dr. King didn’t just “die” but was “assassinated,” “murdered,” “violently killed” and with the approval of far too many in this country. Until and unless there is repentance of this animus and murderous hatred, the country will remain imprisoned to a seared conscience. Until this country and the Church learns to confess its particular sins particularly, we will not overcome the Adamic hostility that infects the human soul and distorts human potential.
Don’t get me wrong. I know Dr. King’s life was much greater than his death. I understand that his death gives us opportunity to reflect on his legacy. But it also gives opportunity to reflect on that twist in our soul that rose up and killed him. It gives opportunity to repent of the things some have with too much pride too often refused to admit is there.
My white neighbors and Christian brethren can start by at least saying their parents and grandparents and this country are complicit in murdering a man who only preached love and justice.
If we’re serious, then we can go on to commit ourselves to laying down our lives for others as Dr. King did. After all, the King of Kings said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).