People were processing a range of emotions, from utter grief to bitter anger. Fearing the possibility of a violent backlash resulting in severe property damage and possible loss of life, local officials had called for this public gathering to diffuse the tension, calm people’s fears, grieve the tragic loss of, and pay tribute to this much admired and beloved civil rights leader.
As the pastor of the one integrated local congregation in what was at the time a highly charged, racially changing the area, I was asked by the organizers of the event to give a brief keynote address. I had had very little time to prepare my remarks, but I did save my highly marked up typewritten manuscript, and to my joy and great surprise I have found the original draft of my brief talk. I thought it might be interesting to some of you to read the reaction of someone who had spoken publicly about the assassination of Dr. King less than 24 hours after it happened, almost 49 years ago.
Martin Luther King, Jr., is dead – like the late president Kennedy, a victim of an assassin’s bullet. This, too, was a shot heard round the world, a shot that ricocheted into the hearts of decent folks in every land.
The meaning of this tragedy has been and will be expressed by far more eloquent tongues than mine. The shock, the injustice, the terrible cruelty of such an utterly senseless murder has shrouded our nation with a sorrow that is deep and difficult to bear. The capture of the assassin can hardly compensate for the pain and anguish that we feel, nor fill the void that is in the hearts of four grief-stricken children who have lost their father, and a wife who has lost her husband.
The untimely death of this man whose courage, whose wisdom, whose creative ability and dynamic leadership have been an inspiration to freedom-loving people everywhere, is a stunning loss to the entire world. His life has been snuffed out at the very peak of its usefulness.
Yet already he has been acclaimed for his contributions to humanity. Winner of the esteemed Nobel Peace Prize, he had received the plaudits of those in high places as well as the praise of those of humble estate. Although it is not for us to assess his greatness, I am confident that history will record his name among the moral and spiritual giants of our age.
It will be for you and me, and for our children, to decide whether or not he shall have lived and died in vain. The cause for which he gave his life was the cause of justice and freedom for all people. If we believe in that cause, then we will do all in our power to work for that cause. It is not by flowery words or impressive eulogies that we must show the genuineness of our grief for this champion of justice, but by deeds of virtue and sacrifice.
His was a sacrifice made for all people, not just for one race of humankind. His death is our common loss, by virtue of our common humanity. So let it not be used as an excuse for violence and bloodshed, nor for pillaging and plundering. This would be a denial of everything Dr. King stood for.
As one who herself has far more reason for bitterness than most of us, Mrs. John F. Kennedy, sharing, I’m sure, the terrible grief of Mrs. King, said this morning, “Let the assassination of Dr. King make room in people’s hearts for love, not for hate.”
I pray that men, women, and children of goodwill everywhere will see that Martin Luther King. Jr.’s ideals are not betrayed, that our nation will not be torn asunder by hatred and revenge, and that together we will work for justice and freedom for all humanity, until that day when neither violent nor nonviolent protest will be needed, because America will have become what she was destined to be: one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.