It was a warm April evening in the Collier Heights community of Atlanta on April 4, 1968. My friends, siblings and I were outside of our home climbing the large Mimosa tree in the front yard. The open front screen door was bringing a fresh breeze into our living room. We suddenly heard a loud scream, jumped down from the tree and rushed inside. My mother was on her knees in front of the TV screaming and weeping “He has been shot. They killed him. We knew they would kill him.” That was when I first learned about the bullet that changed the world.
Soon we heard sirens from dozens of police cars speeding down our street and braking five doors down at the home of Dr. King’s parents — Rev. and Mrs. Martin Luther King, Sr. Barricades were placed at the entrance of our street and over six days, for 24 hours, there was a police presence. That week, we sat on our front steps, with the adults on lawn chairs, and watched as Civil Rights leaders, clergy, elected officials, and entertainers in limousines arrived to offer condolences.
Dr. King’s body was returned to Atlanta from Memphis and laid in rest, prior to the funeral, on the campus of Spelman College. At 10:00 pm, thinking the line would not be as long, our parents took us to the college to pay our respects.
In the 54 years since that bullet was fired, Dr. King’s principles of non-violent social change have spread across the world. The U.S. Congress and all 50 states established Dr. King’s birthday as a federal holiday, making it the only holiday named after an individual. Almost 1,000 streets and bridges are named after him throughout the United States, as well as thousands of sites and recognitions across the world.
54 years after his assassination by the bullet that changed the world, I ask that we reflect on his work and legacy.
Dr. King lived four years after the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the passage of which would not have occurred without President Lyndon B. Johnson’s prowess as a politician from a southern state. That same year, President Johnson announced his War on Poverty with a bold agenda to improve the educational, social, and economic conditions of those living in poverty.
Shortly thereafter, the attention of the President, Congress, and the public was diverted to the Vietnam War. In 1964, almost 200,000 soldiers were deployed to Vietnam, a draft was instituted, and anti-war protests accelerated. Families were receiving caskets daily with the bodies of their sons killed in the war.
54 years later, remember that Dr. King gave us a formula for a beloved community. And it’s time we picked up the mantle and get to work creating it.
Dr. King began to speak consistently about the three evils: Poverty, Racism, and Militarism. He denounced the lack of political and public will to dismantle the antecedents of poverty and systemic racism. Additionally, he endorsed the movement to end the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war.
He shifted from a singular focus on Black civil rights to human rights for all disenfranchised people in the United States and across the world. He was also aware of, and deeply concerned about, the FBI surveillance recordings, and increasing threats against his life. Dr. King confided to those closest to him about his premonition of his pending death.
We are familiar with his “I’ve Seen the Mountaintop” speech delivered in Memphis the evening before his assassination. But many are not as aware of his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon delivered from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church on February 4, 1968 — two months to the day before his assassination. Below is an excerpt:
“Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what life’s final common denominator is — that something that we call death. We all think about it.
“And every now and then I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral. And I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, “What is it that I would want said?” And I leave the word to you this morning.
“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long.
“And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize — that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards — that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
“I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.”
54 years later, the legacy of that bullet has fostered many great strides in our country and across the world. We have seen a Black President elected as well as racial breakthroughs in every aspect of American life. We have come together as global citizens to speak out for climate justice, gun violence, immigrants,’ LGBTQ+ and women’s rights, and Black Lives Matter.
Simultaneously, the United States leads the world in gun-related deaths. During the pandemic, we have seen the highest increases of gun violence and assaults on Black people, women, children, LGBTQ+ people, Asian Americans, and other marginalized groups. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there were more acts of antisemitism in Colorado than ever previously documented. The threat against our Democracy must be of concern to all of us, as the fabric of our country continues to be pulled apart.
54 years later, remember that Dr. King gave us a formula for a beloved community. And it’s time we picked up the mantle and get to work creating it. A Beloved Community is:
“A global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it.”
ACLU of Colorado, let’s accelerate our efforts to build authentic, non-transactional, relationships with our disenfranchised neighbors across our state. In building alliances with those most impacted, we reposition ourselves committed to being “of the people,” and not just “for the people.”
In closing, I leave you with his words, “We must learn to live together as brothers (and sisters) or perish together as fools.”
Deborah Richardson is the Executive Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
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