2008 is an interesting year to perhaps finally give a new analysis of Martin Luther King–the man and the mystery. January, of course, not only had recognition on MLK Day on 1/21, but we’re heading into the 40th anniversary this year of his tragic assassination in April 1968. All of that is generating a lot of concern in the media that King is becoming similar to other great men in history: A one-dimensional figure only known by current generations for the continuous sound bites heard this time of year from his “I Have a Dream” speech. Discussions assumedly take place every January in our public schools about King and his aspirations for racial equality. But, as with the study of all great men in history books and History Class in high school–shouldn’t historians and teachers try to examine a little more what made King and great men like him tick?
It might not have to be so speculative if you do a little deduction in connection to certain events people like King found themselves in. And King’s final day on earth was, in its own powerful way, one of the most extraordinary for any notable figure of the 20th century.
Whether you choose to believe that James Earl Ray was King’s true assassin or not (or that secret American forces were the real culprits)–there’s one chilling thing that I’ve noticed from seeing the stunning footage of King giving his final speech in Memphis that day on April 4, 1968: He knew he was going to die…possibly within hours. In every sense of the word, you can see on his face that he knew his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech would be his last. This man had the look of pain and concern…plus more prescience than anybody might have known. While an unconfirmed rumor, some have said King mentioned at an earlier time that he had a vivid dream at night not long before about dying from a gunshot wound.
In my opinion, his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech is one of the most monumental and inspirational speeches ever given in modern U.S. history…perhaps even more powerful than 1963’s “I Have a Dream” in Washington, D.C. If you’re already familiar with “I Have a Dream” through and through–then the events that happened in Memphis that April 4, 1968 day have enough intense emotional underpinnings to overwhelm any person who cares about humanity. But you have to put ALL the events of that day in perspective first. It actually starts two or three weeks earlier when King was called to come to Memphis and help settle an African-American sanitation worker strike that was polarizing the region.
If you think the writers strike in Hollywood (still going on as of this writing) is creating chaos–this strike was one of the most intense of the times. 1,300 African-American men asking for mere fairness in a decent working wage was a bold move when living in Memphis then–even though the confidence of having King stepping in helped reinforce the boldness. Despite King trying to intervene, it just led to more chaos and violence with his presence. Some deaths occurred during the strike that only exacerbated the problem more when King seemed to be losing all control over helping the situation. He was used to having better fortune in calming chaotic situations like this from past experience and influence. That’s enough reason to set an influential leader into a state of anguish and feelings of being enveloped into something too powerful to solve on your own.
What Martin Luther King May Have Really Seen on the Mountaintop…
It’s no secret that King’s life was already being threatened in more ways than one. Even on his way to Memphis on his last day to give the Mountaintop speech–his plane was running late because of a bomb threat. It seems he would have been used to it all by that time after several years of close calls from mere individual racist individuals. But there seemed to be something in King’s soul that day that predicted something was going to happen that maybe was beyond an ordinary citizen taking his life.
One man being called to try and see their race through the storm is a burden that the world shouldn’t really place on a person. The world has always done that, though, when they realize even their own religions point out the importance of leaders needing to be implemented in order to get physical results. Once we entered the troubled times of the 20th century in America, they became fewer and fewer to find as each decade wore on. King found himself in one of the most turbulent decades in American history to date where those who wanted better for this country relied on (especially during 1967-68) not only him as a uniter–but also Bobby Kennedy…as imperfect as they were in private. It seems to be more than coincidence–other than some human grand design–that they both were killed within two months of one another…followed by a nervous breakdown for America.
Well, with the weight of the African-American plight weighing heavier than ever before on King’s back–that final day in Memphis takes another unexpected turn. King had been negotiating off and on those weeks on getting the sanitation worker strike to end. The day he returned to Memphis on April 4, he managed to get the strike settled the same day he gave his “Mountaintop” speech. Even though it was an indirect influence–King succeeded one more time in bringing about a better life for African-American people. When he gave that “Mountaintop” speech, however, what he said he saw in his future vision had to be beyond prophetic. He saw the future of African-American culture and how they eventually would be treated like everybody else in America–with maybe some outside racial discord nonetheless still existing. That’s exactly how it turned out.
Then King said “I may not get there with you…” And that’s exactly how it turned out. He knew he was in too deep at this point as an influential person. He may have been the most influential non-governmental person in the entire country at that moment and time–even more so than the desired future President, Bobby Kennedy. Unfortunately, when you’re more powerful than the powers-that-be…you’re a sitting duck. King’s brilliant insight and sensitivity to the future picked up on that. Based on his facial strain during the “Mountaintop” speech, it shows that he knew the powers-that-be would bring him down through some means somewhere. What kind of details he may have known were brewing is a mystery, but it almost makes you wonder if what he also saw in his metaphorical Mountaintop was how his own death would play out within hours of telling his followers his fate.
King’s little-known final words…
To show how at peace King was with his faith (and maybe his fate)–you only have to see what he uttered right after he was shot on the 2nd-floor balcony at the Lorraine Motel. A musician friend named Ben Branch (who was planning to perform at an event they were all scheduled to attend later in the evening) leaned in to King who told him in a weak voice: “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” Whether Branch did or not is unknown. But Mahalia Jackson sang it at King’s funeral a week later via King’s own request in the event of his death.
Many people probably assume that King died instantly on the balcony–yet he died an hour later in the hospital. And some biographers (particularly a famous one by Taylor Branch) say that King may not have lived much longer anyway due to having the heart of a 60-year-old. When you have the weight of the world on your back–you’ll be run through the ringer and perhaps die of natural causes before you’re 50. No wonder Presidents of the U.S. turn gray-haired before their first or second terms are up.
What the irony of that final day for King is still leaves me in a state of awe. Many say he could have lived a little longer had he obviously not have been there. The crux of why he returned that day was to help settle the sanitation worker strike. Imagine, perhaps, the sense of satisfaction he felt before dying in the hospital that evening that he, in actuality, sacrificed his life to help African-American men who dumped garbage for a living. The plight of the African-American who even had to deal with a lesser job than others was finally able to gain rare dignity and respect via the sacrifice of one of this nation’s greatest leaders.
If that isn’t one of the most incredible American stories in the history of its life–I don’t know what is.
The juxtaposition of King’s life, personal concerns and the plight of those sanitation workers should be the new way schools study King’s time on this planet to provide a feeling of more fascination, controversy and sacrifice for the betterment of us all in understanding accurate history.