Today we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He would have been eighty five years old.
This most unique man is celebrated with a most unique holiday. Where most holidays are considered a day off, President Clinton altered Dr. King’s Holiday, which had been signed into existence by President Reagan ten years earlier. It is universally recognized as a day “on”, a day of service.
You’ve probably been inundated with “little known facts” about Dr. King, Much like the label “New and Improved” it seems the phrase “little known facts” should be removed after a dozen websites have listed the facts for a decade. Of the three individuals currently recognized with national holidays, Dr. King is only person born in the United States (George Washington was born before the United States existed).
There are many stories (and legends) about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the civil rights leader, but the greatness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the man is why he is commemorated with a national holiday. One of the simplest is the observation that there are very few images of Dr. King smoking a cigarette. There was a stigma within he church at the time, but the reason he expressed to others was that he didn’t want to set a bad example for his son. One of the most influential men of our time was concerned about the example smoking might have for his son.
Dr. King was brilliant, having skipped both ninth and twelfth grades and entering Morehouse College at the age of fifteen, an impressive achievement, particularly for a young black man in 1944 Atlanta Georgia. He graduated in 1948 and enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester Pennsylvania. I’ve been to Crozer several times and never noticed any markers commemorating Dr. King. He received a Ph. D. in Systematic Theology from Boston University in 1955, having already accepted a position as Pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama. In December, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on a bus to a white man, and Dr. King was thrust into the limelight as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted over a year.
In his address to the NAACP on 1 January 1957, Dr. King spoke to the challenges addressing civil rights within a political framework. “Actually, the Negro has been betrayed by both the Republican and the Democratic party. The Democrats have betrayed him by capitulating to the whims and caprices of the Southern Dixiecrats. The Republicans have betrayed him by capitulating to the blatant hypocrisy of reactionary right wing northern Republicans. And this coalition of southern Dixiecrats and right wing reactionary northern Republicans defeats every bill and every move towards liberal legislation in the area of civil rights”.
Dr King was an admirer of Mohandis Gandhi, citing his use of non-violence in his 1964 Nobel acceptance speech “a magnificent way by Mohandas K. Gandhi to Challenge the might of the British Empire…he struggled only with the weapons of truth, soul force, non-injury and courage”.
Knowing these things about Dr. King, knowing the depth of his commitments to his beliefs, it confuses me when people use his image to further goals that he quite obviously would not only not endorse, but most probably rail against.
On the evening of 4 April 1968, Dr. King stepped out onto the balcony of the Lorraine motel in Memphis Tennessee for a cigarette.
From the ballistic evidence, Dr. King was leaning downward, possibly tying his shoe, when a .30-06 bullet struck his cheek, breaking his jaw, then ran down his neck, severing his jugular vein and breaking several vertebrae as it traveled down his spinal cord.
James Earl Ray, who had escaped from Missouri State Penitentiary the year before and had in the interim traveled extensively about North America, confessed to firing that shot after he was captured at London’s Heathrow Airport on his way to Rhodesia, where he intended to live under Ian Smith’s white minority regime.
Ray entered a plea of guilty in order to avoid a death sentence and received a sentence of ninety nine years in prison. Days later he recanted his plea, and began his story of a conspiracy to kill Dr. King. He stated he had believed that George Wallace would be elected President and would pardon him. He spent the remainder of his life unsuccessfully attempting to withdraw his guilty plea. He died in 1998, after escaping and being recaptured in 1977.
In 1997, almost thirty years after Dr. King’s death, his son Dexter, who had been seven years old when Dr. King was assassinated, met with Ray in Prison. Dexter was convinced of Ray’s innocence, and supported his efforts to obtain a retrial. Loyd Jowers, the owner of Jim’s Grill in Memphis, had been alluding to a conspiracy to kill Dr. King since the early 1990s, and after Ray’s death, the King family brought a wrongful death suit against Jowers and “other unknown co-conspirators”. Despite the main witness being taped admitting the story as false, and Jowers’ sister testifying she had participated in creating the false story in order to make money selling the story, The civil jury found Jowers and “others, including government agencies” participated in a conspiracy to assassinate Dr. King in 1999. Jowers died in May 2000.
The Memphis county prosecutor had said on several occasions that Jowers’ claims were without merit, but to be fair, they could have been co-conspirators. No government agencies were specified in the verdict, nor was the level (local, state or federal) of the agencies specified. A 2000 Department of Justice report concluded that Jower’s claims were not substantiated nor credible and that they found significant evidence to refute them. Nonetheless, the King family prefers to believe that James Earl Ray did not kill Dr. King.
That such a story exists detracts from the truths of Dr. King’s life, a life dedicated to truth and justice. Perpetuating the story eradicates any shadow of credibility the person spreading it may have had. Dr. King would not approve of such a grotesque misinterpretation of the truth, and I believe he would be appalled that it is connected to his memory.
I think he’d be more troubled by that than by all the people who can’t bring themselves to speak his name, and call him MLK. He and his father are named for the reformer, Martin Luther, and his name is Doctor Martin Luther King, junior. He was an American who changed the world.