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Lonnette Harrell

40 years ago, Martin Luther King was killed, and many of us have memories of that tragic day. I do not mourn the death of his dream, however, because that dream is still very much alive. I am a freelance writer, and I was writing an abstract today, about a new book, by Michael Eric Dyson, April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Death and How It Changed America. I was listening to an interview on NPR’s Talk of The Nation, and I was deeply moved by Dyson’s observations of how Martin Luther King is remembered today. He recounts that MLK was threatened and harrassed continually, often speaking of his own death, and the legacy he hoped to leave, while he was still alive. Dyson said that MLK had to deal with the realization that he could be killed at any moment, and that the only time he really felt comfortable was when he was in a room with no windows, with people he implicitly trusted. Can you imagine the burden that he carried, having to live with that kind of  realistic fear? He showed great courage by going forward in the midst of that fear. He often suffered insomnia, and sometimes depression. He was a man constantly “under siege” according to Dyson, “all because he wanted to bring transformation to American society.”

Dyson shares that we often cherry pick our memories of Martin Luther King, depending on our race. He suggests that “whites want him clawless, and blacks want him flawless.” (The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.) Dyson argues that if YouTube were available in the time that MLK lived, and people were now able to hear some of his sermons and quotes, King would certainly be considered extremely controversial, as his message was very radical. He says that many whites have sanitized his message to fit their own agenda, while many blacks have worshipped him as a perfect icon, forgetting that he had personal failures, struggles, and frailties. (King admitted that he made mistakes.)

King was able to use his own speeches about his impending death, to remind people of the great sacrifice needed in order to move forward, as well as the potential redemptive nature of his martydom to advance the cause.

Martin Luther King called America to “be true to what you wrote on paper”–meaning the Constitution, The Bill of Rights, and The Declaration of Independence. He made a distinction between the ideals of America, and the realities. Michael Eric Dyson calls it moving from “parchment to pavement–from the ideals (of America) into the streets, where blood flowed, in the trenches of racial warfare…” Dr. King called on all of us to look within our hearts, and find the truth of our predjudices and inequalities. Patriotism sometimes involves calling your nation to live up to the dreams it espouses. Dyson refers to it as “loving your country enough to tell the truth about its greatnesses, its glories, its griefs, and its flaws.”

I was struck by the emotional calls that came into to radio show, with personal rememberances of the day MLK died. One caller spoke of the deaths of President John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, as the end of the dreams of a generation, (of having these visionary people leading us into the future.) It was a loss of heroes, ideals, and hope that many have still not recovered from. One woman called into the show, and broke down in tears, as she talked about King’s assassination.

Dyson also speaks of how white racism forced blacks into their own churches, and he explains how the black church is often not just a place to preach the gospel, but also a place to gather socially, and to speak freely about politics, inequalities, organizing, and racial history. (I confess, as a white person, this gave me a greater understanding of what O’Bama was trying to say in his recent speech on racial issues within the black church.) Dyson says that many black preachers speak in a prophetic mode, politically and socially, and can say things in the black pulpit, that might not get said in other venues.

While there have been great strides in racial equality in our country, we still have some distance to cover. Hopefully, we can achieve that in peaceful, non-violent ways that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., always advocated.

A woman at the end of the interview called in with the final comment, and said she was of mixed race, and had been empowered by Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. She cried openly, as she talked about King’s assassination, recounting that she felt, “We lost our messenger. And then what happened, is that we started looking at color, and we started looking at color of skin, rather than color of heart.

May we always strive to further the vision that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had, that one day this country would be a nation where all people are equal, where all people will stand together as brothers and sisters, and where all people are judged by their character, rather than by the color of their skin. We may have killed the messenger, but the dream lives on…


Please see other articles that I have written here:


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