No one took Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life on April 4, 1968, he gave it. In an act that was the ultimate example of the non-violent philosophy he championed, King absorbed a fatal blow, borne of the racial animus his 14 years of non-stop activism hoped to end. James Earl Ray may been have convicted of killing the anti-racist, anti-poverty and anti-war leader with a Remington Gamemaster rifle, but King consciously signed his own death warrant by living the social gospel of his faith to the letter. In a speech publicly opposing the Vietnam war, given at Riverside Church in New York exactly one year before his death, King said “Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?”
King was also facing the compassion fatigue of the public and the fickle attention of the media. After a decade of protests in the south, and spasms of riots in the north, The Post-War idealism of the Kennedy/Johnson era was yielding to “Law and Order” cynicism of Nixon/Reagan ethos. King’s trip to Memphis was actually an attempt at a do-over. A March 25 protest for striking Sanitation workers had devolved into a riot. If King could not demonstrate that his philosophy of nonviolence could prevail, his Poor People’s Campaign and this very relevance, were in jeopardy.
At 5:05 pm on April 3, King’s police protection was withdrawn. If a police detail had been on duty on April 4th, which was customary law enforcement protocol when King, who was the object of constant threat, traveled, Ray’s plot may have been exposed. The binoculars and rifle muzzle that Ray had to stick out the window of his sniper nest in an adjacent rooming house could have been observed and investigated.
Memphis Police Director Frank Hollman never conveyed the volume of threats against King. Hollamn was a former FBI agent who rose to the ranks of Inspector-in-Charge of bureau’s headquarters in Washington. Scholar David Garrow has extensively documented the bureau and its director J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with “neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader.” In fact, Rosenbloom shows that while Hollman drew down King’s security, he left a surveillance team up and running.
No, King was not afraid to die, a fact that the FBI was counting on. Yale Historian Beverly Gage recently uncovered the first copy of an un-redacted “anonymous” FBI letter sent to King suggesting that he kill himself. It is not widely known, but King tried to kill himself twice as a teenager. The attempts were reported in Time Magazine in 1963. In A First Rate Madness, Dr. Nassir Ghaemi chronicles that some of histories greatest leaders during times of great upheaval suffered from depression. King kept good company in Ghaemi’s historical psychological diagnosis, including Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi.
The FBI wanted King to take his life by his own hand, in punishment for mortal sins and shortcomings documented in tapes that the FBI threatened to release. King, despite numerous bouts of depression, refused to commit an act of self-violence.
The highway that King chose to travel, that led to his martyrdom through assassination, is a heroe’s journey of mythic and divine measure. By passively resisting oppression so stoutly that he welcomed an painful death, King transfigurated from flesh, into a holy ghost that permanently resides in the psyche of our nation.
When a CNN anchor asked former King lieutenants Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson what King would do about gun violence if he was alive today, they both corrected the broadcaster, asserting that King lives.
When King’s grand daughter, Yolanda, age 9, spoke at the March for our Lives in Washington DC, you could hear that King’s cadence and spirit are still on the national stage.
When you watch the last public words spoken by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Masonic Temple on April 3rd, you see a man who knew he would not live another 24 hours. In Rosenbloom’s book, Jesse Jackson described “a mysterious aura around him” after King gave a speech that some described as his most electrifying. King slumped back into his chair, reciting the Battle Hymn of the Republic in a barely audible voice as the crowd convulsed in cheers and tears. The abolitionist anthem was a fitting choice for King’s Final official statement. The words portray the epic struggle that we won we are dedicated to the advancement of human rights and dignity and the tumult that accompanies social change.
Here is the complete last passage from Dr. King’s eulogy to himself:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.