It was a time when the entire nation was a powder keg, a spark away from a conflagration that would rage shore to shore, border to border.
North Korea had seized the USS Pueblo. The Tet Offensive shattered the Johnson administration’s myth that the U.S. was winning the Vietnam War.
Insanity reached the apex via journalist Peter Arnett of The Associated Press quoting an American major commenting on the Ben Tre village battle: “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”
That insanity would prompt CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite to opine that the United States was “mired in a stalemate” and that, “it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate.”
Five weeks later a man stepped up to speak at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, extended the appropriate thanks and well-wishes, and got right down to business.
Using a construct of standing at the beginning of time and the Almighty asking, “Which age would you like to live in?” he takes the audience on a tour of human history.
“I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across, the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the Promised Land.”
He stops by Greece and “Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality.”
He then moves on to the Roman Empire, the transition to the Renaissance, and how he would “watch Martin Luther as he tacked his Ninety-five Theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg.”
Jumping ahead three centuries, he sees “a vacillating president by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation,” and fast forwards to the early 1930s “and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but ‘fear itself.’”
He concludes to the audience, “Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.’ “
If you’re thinking to yourself: What in the world is this man thinking? He answers:
“Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. ... But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the 20th century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.”
He then explained what it meant to him, “It means that we’ve got to stay together ... maintain unity,” that “the issue is injustice,” and he warned that violence would hinder, not help.
That speech was delivered April 3, 1968. The next day, the man who delivered it would step onto the second-floor balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel. At 6:01 p.m. local time, a single bullet ripped through his right cheek and severed his jugular vein, and an hour later Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
And as fast as his life bled out, so too his philosophy of nonviolent protest.
Before the sun would rise on April 5, Washington, D.C., would erupt in rioting that by the time it was quelled three days later would see more than a thousand buildings burned and an inner city economy left in ruins.
In the weeks that followed, violence would spread to more than 100 cities, result in troops being deployed on a scale not seen since the Civil War, and set King’s dream back decades.
I’ve been to the Lorraine Motel, and I assure you, if you ever get the chance, you will leave as I did — humbled and horrified.
It’s one thing to read words from a speech. It’s quite another to stand in person where a man within your own lifetime was shot in cold blood for no other reason than the color of his skin and his desire to forge a better future for his brothers and sisters.
The writer-philosopher George Santayana is credited with the phrase: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Yet here we are, repeating that of just 52 years ago. Let us pray that come 2072, Americans then have at last heeded Santayana’s warning and Dr. King’s dream is no longer words in a speech but reality being lived.
Geoff Caldwell lives in Joplin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.