Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes his last public appearance at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968, a day before his assassination. (AP Photo/Charles Kelly)
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So much has changed since that hot day in August 1963 when Martin Luther King delivered his famous words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A black family lives in the White House and official segregation is a thing of the past. Napalm no longer falls on the homes and people of Vietnam and the president of that country has just visited the United States in order to seek “a new relationship.”
A healthcare law has been passed that guarantees medical services to many millions who, fifty years ago, were entirely outside the system. Gays were then hiding their sexuality everywhere—the Stonewall riots were six years away—and now the Supreme Court has recognized that same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits. Only the year before, Rachel Carson had published her groundbreaking ecological classic Silent Spring, then one solitary book. Today, there is a vigorous movement in the land and across the Earth dedicated to stopping the extinction of our planet.
In 1963, nuclear destruction threatened our species every minute of the day and now, despite the proliferation of such weaponry to new nations, we do not feel that tomorrow is likely to bring 10,000 Hiroshimas raining down on humanity.
So much has changed—and yet so little.
The placards raised in last week’s commemorative march on Washington told exactly that story: calls for ending the drone wars in foreign lands; demands for jobs and equality; protests against mass incarceration, restrictions on the right to an abortion, cuts to education, assaults upon the workers of America, and the exploitation and persecution of immigrants; warnings about the state-by-state spread of voter suppression laws. And chants filling the air, rising above multiple images of Trayvon Martin, denouncing gun violence and clamoring for banks to be taxed. Challenges to us all to occupy every space available and return the country to the people.
Yes, so much has changed—and yet so little.
In my own life, as well.
Words for an Assassination Moment
I wasn’t able to attend last week’s march, but I certainly would have, if events of a personal nature hadn’t interfered. It was just a matter of getting in a car with my wife, Angélica, and driving four hours from our home in Durham, North Carolina.
Fifty years ago, that would have been impossible. We were living in distant Chile and didn’t even know that a march on Washington was taking place. I was 21 years old at the time and, like so many of my generation, entangled in the struggle to liberate Latin America. The speech by King that was to influence my life so deeply did not even register with me.
What I can remember with ferocious precision, however, is the place, the date, and even the hour when, five years later, I had occasion to listen for the first time to those “I have a dream” words, heard the incantations of that melodious baritone, that emotional certainty of victory. I can remember the occasion so clearly because it happened to be April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King was killed, and ever since, his dream and his death have been grievously conjoined in my mind as they still are, almost half a century later.
I recall how I was sitting with Angélica and our 1-year-old child, Rodrigo, in a living room high up in the hills of Berkeley, the university town in California. We had arrived from Chile barely a week earlier. Our hosts, an American family who generously offered us temporary lodgings while our apartment was being readied, had switched on the television. We all solemnly watched the nightly news, probably delivered by Walter Cronkite, the famed CBS anchorman. And there it was, the murder of Martin Luther King in that Memphis hotel, and then came the first reports of riots all over America and, finally, a long excerpt from his “I Have a Dream” speech.