50 Years Ago They Failed to Shut Him Down

by James M. Wall

The first time I almost met Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been at his father’s Ebenezer Baptist church, in Atlanta, Georgia. I was one of three Emory University seminary students assigned to visit MLK, Sr.’s church. We were part of a class called Race.

After the Sunday morning worship service, MLK, Sr., took us to his office for an interview. As we were leaving, Dr. King invited us to return the following Sunday, adding,  “My son Martin will be delivering his first sermon after receiving his Ph. D. from the Boston School of Theology.”

None of us returned. That missed opportunity remains at the top of my personal list of Bad Decisions While Growing Up.

I told that story to MLK, Jr., when, as editor of the Christian Advocate, a United Methodist pastor’s magazine, I interviewed him more than a year before his assassination.

He was killed fifty years ago this Wednesday, April 4, 1968, shot by a lone gunman from a window in a nearby boarding establishment.

What prompted my request for an interview in Chicago, was the publication of an essay which had focused on King’s decision to broaden his movement’s civil rights focus to include opposition to the war in Vietnam and the issue of poverty.

Were Vietnam and poverty the issues that prompted that evil moment when King died? King had long faced powerful forces that wanted him shut down. James Earl Ray fired the shot that ended the life of a civil rights icon.

What the shot did not do was end the movement King inspired. 

King was in Memphis to fight for a wage increase for the city’s garbage workers. This fight was part of King’s effort to broaden his civil rights movement to include poverty as part of his Poor People’s Campaign initiative.

In his final speech The New York Times recalls King’s words that continue to inspire us to action.

In the speech delivered the night before his death, Dr. King declared: “The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers.

It was King’s Dream to lead this nation toward peace and justice. His life ended on April 4, 1968, but one half-century later, Penn State’s Joshua Inwood insists, “With over 43 million people living in poverty in the United States today, King’s ideas still hold much power.”

As Inwood wrote in his essay, King was a leader who understood the necessity of taking the long view:

In the last three years of his life and ministry King had grown frustrated with the slow pace of reform and the lack of funding for anti-poverty programs. In 1966, for example, King moved to Chicago and lived in an urban slum to bring attention to the plight of the urban poor in northern cities. His experiences in the South had convinced him that elimination of poverty was important to winning the long-term battle for civil and social rights.

Were King still with us in body as well as in spirit, I have no doubt that he would wage his struggle for peace and justice on the issues that plague us in this week’s anniversary of his death, issues like Israeli IDF snipers killing at least 17 Palestinians on the northern border of a  colonial-settler line that separates Gaza from Israel.

Or issues like the movement among high school students to bring an end to mass shootings like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In that tragedy, the number initially reported killed was also 17.

The issue is still injustice.

*********     *******

Audio of King’s final speech

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years.
This entry was posted in Gaza, Israel, Martin Luther King Jr., Religious Faith. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to 50 Years Ago They Failed to Shut Him Down

  1. Patricia says:

    Indeed, I look at the injustice in AMERICA, PALESTINE, the World and think, we really haven’t come very far in our love for one another. With Trump, we are moving in reverse!

  2. Robert Assaly says:

    Jim, on this important anniversary, as one who has met the man, please share with us as much as you can about him and your conversation with him.

  3. AWAD PAUL SIFRI says:

    Thank you, Jim, for bringing back to our consciousness a great American Hero, MLK. He has been the inspiration for movements and countries around the world, including the Palestinians.

  4. We know as our Lord taught us that the love of money is the root of all evil; festering injustice is at the root of all upheavals. The question is: will those in power ever learn?

  5. Samia Khoury says:

    Thank you Jim for choosing to focus on Dr. Martin Luther King, in this reflection. Justice is the prerequisite for peace in all walks of life, home, school, business, etc. No child will sit quiet if the mother treats one of the siblings differently, or a teacher favors one student to the other. And so it is on the political arena, and at the UN, especially that there are local laws and international ones as well as charters that all individuals as well as countries need to abide by. One of my favorite quotations for Dr. King, which seems so relevant to the injustice that prevails in our times, is: “We are tied together in a single garment of destiny, We are caught in a network of mutuality. And I can never be who I ought to be until you are who you ought to be”

  6. Rev. Bob Hannumk says:

    Thanks, Jim. The greatest preacher I ever heard, weaving poetic cadence and metaphor with the Bible. I marched with him in Montgomery and both Peggy and I did in Boston. I graduated from BU School of Theology where he did his PhD under my theology prof, L Harold DeWolf. Peggy, who worked in the library while we were there was taken back to see in the archives his dissertation on Ghandhi’s non-violent philosophy. Surely he was a great Saint of the 20th Century, and his spirit still leads the struggle today!

    Bob Hannum .

  7. Nancy Orr says:

    Amen.

  8. David Bebb Jones says:

    Dear Jim, Three personal encounters: First as MLK preached at McCormick Theological Seminary in 1959 with ‘A Letter to the American Church”, still relevant today. Second marching in Selma for Voting rights. Third, going to Memphis after the tragic assassination and standing with the garbage workers and carrying the three signs, which I still have and use in teaching about Civil Rights: I AM a Man; Honor King, End Racism; Union Justice Now. What a prophetic voice was silenced and how we need him now at age 89!

  9. wallwritings says:

    David, Great memories of a great man. Thanks for sharing, Jim

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