Forty years ago last Friday, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot dead at a Memphis, Tennessee, motel by James Earl Ray. Today, we mark forty years without the civil rights leader with great sadness.
April 4th, 1968 is not the only important 4-4 in Dr. King’s life. Friday was also the 41st anniversary of Dr. King’s speech, Beyond Vietnam, simply known as “The Riverside Church Address” named for the church in New York City where he gave the address. This speech, which many consider one of his most important and prophetic, was given exactly one year before his untimely death. In it, King shares his vision for America. He also warned us of the three scourges facing the United States.
Forty-one years ago, Dr. King warned us that the job of the civil rights movement is far from over. The work of justice loving people would never be done as long as the following three things survived:
At this point, the civil rights movement was more than twenty years old. While many strides had been made for the Black American community, there was still so much to do. De jure racism in the form of Jim Crow and government imposed subjugation of members of the Black community may have been turned over, but de facto racism still existed. It was the work of justice seeking people to work toward the beloved community where people existed in mutual love and vulnerability.
Dr. King also noted that poverty was a very real experience for many Americans regardless of race, age, gender, or family history. The anger of the poor was regularly misplaced toward each other rather than toward the unjust systems that held them in their class place. The mantle of racism would persist as long as poverty pitted Americans against each other for resources and happiness.
Finally, Dr. King spoke against the growing tensions between the United States, Vietnam, and other nations. The Cold War caused precious resources to be diverted from social programs to military programs. Militarism and American aggression was a social ill that peace loving people could not accept.
This speech inspired a new branch of the civil rights movements to include a “Poor People’s Movement”. A movement that would bridge the races by working toward the universal experiences of poverty and militarism, this movement would bring the issues of the lowest of the low to Washington. Modeled after Gandhi’s work with the upsetting the Indian Caste System; rich and poor, black and white, young and old would work to build the Beloved Community.
Dr. King was shot while planning a National Poor People’s March on Washington. Ultimately he never got to see the results of that plan and the movements’ largest Washington Supporter, Congressman Robert F. Kennedy, lost his life just days before the March. The loss of these two leaders came too early to help grow this burgeoning movement.
In the following 40 years, we have seen little progress in the world of race relations. We have seen social support programs slashed and more and more people have fallen into the pit of poverty. And the Vietnam War raged for nearly a decade after the speech only to be followed by larger and more bloated military budgets.
During this time of mourning and remembrance, let’s pick up the dropped mantle of Dr. King and his movement. While we may have lost him, his prophetic words are still with us and no less true than they were forty years ago. Especially in this time of racial hurt, economic frustration, and international turmoil—we need Dr. King’s words more than ever.