With what seemed a lifetime worth of achievements behind him, how was it possible that Martin Luther King Jr. was only 39 when he was killed?
Within the shock of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rests the additional shock of realizing that he was only 39 when the gunman found him. Dr. King emerged as the leader of his people’s strength and dignity in Montgomery in 1956 (he was 27), and since then his has been the senior voice of moral integrity and humane determination in the United States. As Dr. Kenneth Clark said on the night of the slaying, “You have to weep for this country.”
And it is by the grace of Dr. King’s spirit that this whole country may mourn its loss. His generosity excluded no one, not the most complacent, not the most heedless, not the most bigoted, from the dream he had. He was a man capable of magnificent anger, but hate was not in him; he denounced the act, never the man. Hatred, indeed, was his sin-gle foe — both the hatred that steamed out of prejudice, and the hatred which, in retalia-tion and frustration, the black people have been calling down on white society. Violence is now expected, but if Dr. King’s spirit can live with us in the next few weeks it need not occur.
‘Let Justice roll down like waters in a mighty stream.’ said the Prophet Amos. He was seeking not consensus but the cleansing action of revolutionary change. America has made progress toward freedom, but measured against the goal the road ahead is still long and hard.
For many years, it was The Nation‘s privilege to publish Dr. King’s annual report on civil rights, an address on the State of the Nation in the true sense of the phrase. The above quote comes from his article of March 15, 1965; it is typical of how his mind worked: Proud, unhampered by passion, perfectly understanding the size of the job to be done and utterly confident that men endued with his spirit could do it.
The road is still long and hard, and this terrible killing, which could be motivated only by the malice of ignorance, makes it the more difficult to a degree no one can yet estimate.
But one thing is certain: we must march. We must march all together and in his name; violence is always irrelevant, in the context of Dr. King’s life it is obscene. As the country knows, he had planned to enter Washington later this month at the head of a “Poor People’s Crusade.” That appointment must be kept — it is the solemn duty of the gov-ernment to see that it is kept and that it goes forward in the spirit of magnanimous de-termination to let justice roll down that animated every action Dr. King took. And we should all be there, for now that Dr. King is slain, the title of his crusade takes on a dif-ferent meaning: in his shadow, we are all “Poor People.” Decency is all he ever asked of the country, and only by the decency of social justice and human respect can the coun-try heal itself of this intolerable deed.