The Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 43 Years Ago Today

[Note: Professor Rubén G. Rumbaut sent this out to his class today. It reminds me of my own experiences that terrible day. Joe]

Martin Luther King, Jr. (born on January 15, 1929) did not live to see his 40th birthday, but he left us a legacy for all seasons. A religious man of modest origins, who like many of you majored in sociology in college (at BU) and became perhaps the greatest orator in American history, he was murdered in Memphis, TN, on April 4, 1968, at the young age of 39 — a brutal, senseless assassination that changed the narrative arc of history in ways we can scarcely imagine.

Each year I send my students a note on this fateful anniversary, with varying content — not least because I remember the date as if it was yesterday: I was a teenager in college, working 30 hours a week while going to school in St. Louis, Missouri, with hardly any savings… but enough to buy a plane ticket to Atlanta, Georgia, and make it in time to join the tens of thousands who lined the streets and marched in the funeral procession that followed his mule-drawn casket. I was not even a citizen of the United States then; but I was shocked and dismayed by the senselessness of the assassination of a man of peace at a time of war, and felt that the only meaningful way in which I could respond to was to make an acto de presencia, in silent solidarity. In a way, I have been making that trip of remembrance ever since.

What had brought Dr. King to Memphis the day before was the struggle of 1,300 black sanitation workers for economic justice. Seeking to join the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1733, they had gone on strike in February to protest years of poor treatment, indignities, discrimination, dangerous working conditions and two recent work-related deaths, while being denied the right of collective bargaining. Their picket signs had a simple but profound message: “I Am A Man.” On April 3, the last full day of his life, Dr. King had marched with the garbage workers, facing down the armed forces of a city and state, declaring that “work that serves humanity… has dignity and it has worth.”

This year, 2011, marked the 82nd anniversary of his birth–and the 56th of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that he led as a newly appointed minister (at an age not much older than most of you in this class), after a young woman, Rosa Parks, refused to sit on the back of a bus as required by the norms of the white supremacist Jim Crow system of caste segregation that had been in place since the previous century. That boycott brought both to national prominence and catalyzed a modern civil rights movement, the legacies of which continue to reverberate into the 21st century.

Beginning officially on January 20, 1986–after much controversy and nearly two decades after his assassination–the third Monday of every January became designated a national holiday to commemorate his life. [But not all states agreed to honor it; amazingly, it was not until 2000 before all 50 states did so. Arizona finally did under pressure after the Super Bowl was moved by the NFL from Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe to the Pasadena Rose Bowl in 1993.] Much of what is said and done in those annual days of remembrance amount to little more than a 30-second-sound-bite version of a man, a life, and a historic period that defy trivialization. Given the central relevance of his life and legacy to our course, this e-mail is an effort to do more than join in the collective trivialization, and to urge you to do likewise.

For those of you interested in exploring the extraordinary life, work, times and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., there is now a treasure trove of information–not only of most of his entire collection of published writings but also of his speeches on audiotape (so that you can listen to them just as they were delivered), as well as biographies, articles, an interactive chronology, videos in Real format, etc., plus information about the remarkable project that makes this possible–available online at: The link is also posted in our Soc 63 website: “Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University.”

I encourage you to visit the Stanford site and spend some time exploring it. For instance, you might want to find the audiolink to listen to selections from his remarkable speech at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination (the war at that time was in Vietnam, not in Afghanistan or Iraq, but what he had to say then remains eerily prescient now), and also read or print out the text of that speech, which is at: Martin Luther King, Jr., Beyond Vietnam, 4 April 1967

I am attaching … on the anniversary of his death, links to his shortest and best known speeches: the one he gave in Oslo when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 (he was but 35 years old at the time): December 10, 1964 – Acceptance Speech at Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony — and perhaps his most famous oration at the base of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963 (the occasion for which was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom coinciding with the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation): Martin Lu ther King, Jr., I Have a Dream, 28 August 1963. Yet Dr. King was no dreamer, but a man of action par excellence: Not one of you should graduate from college, or leave this class, without reading the classic essay he penned from jail in April of that same year: “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963). In it he wrote that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” He sought, indefatigably and with few illusions, economic and political power and justice for a people long downtrodden, as you’ll read in his August 1967 speech, “Where Do We Go From Here?”, but yet driven by the conviction that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

And he could be prophetic, never more so than in his last speech on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, exactly 43 years ago, the night before he was assassinated: “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”. In it he told the crowd about a bomb threat on his plane from Atlanta to Memphis that very morning, adding that he knew that his life was constantly in danger because of his political activism: “I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountaintop, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”

Today, even as we are once again shocked by assassinations in a ratcheted-up climate of hate (as in Tucson, AZ, last January, and around the world, as in the murderous rampage in Afghanistan this week provoked by the burning of a Koran by a self-proclaimed fundamentalist “pastor” in Gainesville, FL), do take a moment and go to the King project site to expand your awareness and knowledge of a life that made and continues to make a difference… and a voice for reason that is missed, and needed, more than ever.


  1. Will

    Great article, Ruban. Thanks a lot to the links to his speeches.

    I think it’s sad that all most people remember about Dr. King was his “Dream” speech from the March on Washington. Dr. King spoke and did more than that. It’s even more pathetic that in conversations about race people misuse, misinterpret and misquote Dr. King to support their “colorblind” arguments. Hopefully, those sites and speeches will make people learn more about King than what major media stations and school textbooks did.


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