By Obadiah Mailafia
WEDNESDAY 4th April this year marks 50 years down to the very day, when African-American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr was felled by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee.
The year was 1968. He was visiting the notoriously racist southern state to support striking sanitation workers.
It is one of the great ironies of history that a man who had dedicated his entire life to fighting social injustice strictly through nonviolent peaceful means was himself killed in such a violent manner. Many people do not realise that he was only 39 when his life’s work was ended.
Many saw it coming. His house had once been bombed, with his wife and children barely able to escape. A deranged woman once plunged a butcher’s knife into his chest, missing his heart by a hair’s breadth. The FBI under the demoniac Edgar Hoover had hounded him relentlessly. He had a premonition of his own death.
At a church service the night before, he left his last testament in his famous Mountaintop Speech: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. Like anybody, 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 mountain. 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….so I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…”
All hell broke loose following the news of his assassination. Black youths set fire to shops, warehouses and buildings.
Sporadic violence broke out in Washington DC, Chicago, New York City, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Baltimore and other cities, with some 45 people died, over 2,500 wounded and some 15,000 arrests were made by law-enforcement agents.
President Lyndon Johnson, himself a progressive reformer, was at his wit’s end. Robert Kennedy, a presidential candidate and younger brother of the assassinated John F. Kennedy, made an impassioned speech that seemed to have calmed the waves: “For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust…against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling.
I had a member of my own family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort….to go beyond these rather difficult times.
My favourite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Barely two months later, on 5 June 1968, was Robert Kennedy mortally wounded by a Palestinian fanatic named Sirhan Sirhan.
Martin Luther King Jr was born into a privileged middle class family on 15 January 1929. His father was a Southern Baptist Minister in Atlanta, Georgia. MLK attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, graduating at the rather young age of 18. He went for graduate work at Boston University, where he earned a doctorate in Systematic Theology. After graduation, as fate would have it, he began his pastorate at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He was barely 25.
Like most Southern cities, Montgomery was mired in Jim Crow racism. The young pastor, barely in his twenties, was caught up in mass boycott of public buses by black people protesting discrimination. On December 1 1955, a seamstress by the name of Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the “coloured section” of a public bus. Her subsequent arrest provoked a mass demonstration by the black community in Montgomery. A movement was born, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The people looked for leadership and they found it in the frail shoulders of this newly arrived young pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The rest, as they say, is history.
Martin Luther King Jr. did not seek fame. Rather, it was fame that sought him. He had a dream and a calling. His dream was to liberate his long-suffering people from racial oppression. His calling was to be the servant of his people. MLK often said that a man has not begun to live until he has found a life-purpose big enough to die for. His campaigns centred on desegregation, voting rights, fair wages and access to education and health. His high watermark was the famous March on Washington in 1963, which culminated with his famous “I have a Dream” speech; one of the greatest in the annals of political rhetoric.
MLK became a leader of world stature. In October 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. In 1965 he led the marches from Selma to Montgomery. In 1966 the movement turned its attention farther north, to Chicago. Their focus was on segregated housing. The SCLC became a nationwide movement mobilising African-Americans and all men and women of good conscience in the fight for social justice and human dignity in the United States of America.
When MLK turned his attention to the injustice of the Vietnam War, it seemed to the Establishment that he had crossed the Rubicon. He was labelled a rabble-rouser, communist agent and a philanderer. He had to die. Despite all his detractors, his name and legacy will endure through the ages. MLK was a drum major for social justice; an apostle of peace — the moral conscience of America. Without his legacy the idea of an African-American as president of the United States would have been well-nigh unthinkable. By the sheer moral force of his spirit, MLK transformed the very meaning of what it means to be an American.
MLK was in Accra on 6 March 1957 when Ghana celebrated its independence as a sovereign nation. He identified with the leading independence leaders of the New Africa. He saw the destiny of the Mother Continent as inseparable from that of his captive people in the Americas and the islands of the seas. But we must never idolise any human being. MLK had his own shortcomings – after all, he was only human. What stood him apart was that he had moral courage. And he was a man of compassion, truth and justice. And he loved the Lord greatly.
The world will never be the same because Martin Luther King Jr. passed through it. He once appeared to me in a dream several years ago when I was a struggling young university lecturer in London. He was in tattered rags with dirt and wounds all over him; silently weeping. Without words, the message came to me: that the work that he lived and died for is not yet ended. We must take up the baton where he left it. With the immense suffering, poverty and injustice that we see everywhere around us – in Nigeria, in Africa, in the world — the work of God has only begun.