"Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life's final common denominator—that something that we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don't think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, 'What is it that I would want said?' And I leave the word to you this morning.
"If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.
"I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.
"I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
"I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.
"I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.
"And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.
"I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.
"I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
"Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say."
- -—M.L.K. Jr., in a sermon delivered at Ebenezer
- -Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, on February
- -4th, 1968, two months before his death.
- -© The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I can find little information online or in my library about the famous photograph taken of the slain Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, which is now a civil rights museum. It was taken by one Joseph Louw, an assistant producer of a film being made about Dr. King's planned march in Memphis. Eric Meola reports on The Digital Journalist that Louw gave the exposed film to Ernest C. Withers for development, and Withers, who often fed his own civil rights images to LIFE magazine (many of which were then published under other photographers' names), secured for Louw a payment of $50,000 from LIFE for the roll of film.
Dr. King was killed at a time when he saw his influence eroding. Demonized by segments of the white population, under constant harassment from government agencies, and the victim of continual threats, he was also under pressure from more militant younger black activists, who rejected the commitment to nonviolence King had patterned after the examples of Mohandas Gandhi and Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, he had returned to Memphis for what was essentially a do-over: a repeat performance of an earlier march that had turned violent despite his leadership.
"He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. They called him a rabble-rouser. They called him a troublemaker. They said he was an agitator. He practiced civil disobedience; he broke injunctions. And so he was turned over to his enemies...."
- -—M.L.K. Jr. on Jesus, from the same speech
Human beings as a whole deplore nonviolence; the human race can abide almost anything, but it cannot abide peacemakers. (A recent book makes all too plain the malevolent antipathy of Winston Churchill toward Gandhi. "Gandhi-ism and all it stands for will, sooner or later, have to be grappled with and finally crushed," said Churchill, who also wanted Gandhi to be allowed to starve himself to death in prison. He was talked out of it by his advisors.) Martin Luther King came to the same end as Gandhi and Jesus before him. Perhaps it was inevitable, and the time and place were only arbitrary, but it happened to be forty years ago today, on that nondescript hotel balcony pictured above.
"Blessed are the peacemakers."
- -—Jesus, Matthew 5:9. (Cf. Matthew 5:21.)
Featured Comment by Chris Y.: "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–1963 by Taylor Branch has to be the best book on King's era...one harrowing story after another—King, his staff, the freedom riders, the clergy and the Federal officials who eventually got on the right side of the struggle. They don't seem to make them like that any more...."