Forty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. It had been five years since the historic March on Washington, and four years since he had accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. He was in Memphis to lead a strike of sanitation workers.
Some interpreted his presence there as a sign of his diminished status. He was, after all, far from the haunts of the powerful. But anyone who had followed his career knew otherwise. For, while he marched against racism, he also marched against poverty. "The curse of poverty has no justification in our age," he wrote in 1967. "It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time for us has come to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty."
In the years since his death, some -- citing King's personal failings -- have dismissed him as a hypocrite. But they fail to note that King was at home in the temples of the wealthy and the hovels of the poor. And, despite the rising tide of violence -- which threatened to engulf the Civil Rights Movement -- King remained true to his faith in non-violence. "Non-violence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time," he said when he accepted the Nobel Prize. For, more than anything else, the challenge of the time was " the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence." Non violence was the way to achieve and maintain justice: "the foundation of such a method," he said," is love."
Robert Kennedy, who was running for president when King was killed, spoke to a largely African American crowd on April 4, 1968. Kennedy's biographers claim that, after the death of his elder brother, he read the plays of Aeschylus, with whom he had little acquaintance -- until November 22, 1963. And it was to Aeschylus that Kennedy turned, knowing what would follow King's death :
He who learns must suffer.
And even in our sleep,
Pain that cannot forget,
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
And in our own despair, against our will,
Comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
Kennedy's words have a particular poignancy, because he, too, had a date with an assassin's bullet some two months later. For those of us who came of age in that time, King's death marked a turning point. As Jesse Jackson has said, that day has divided life into two segments: before King and after King. His death marked the death of our innocence and the birth of a new cynicism.
But that dichotomy is too simple. We have, in Dickens' phrase, lived through the best and worst of times. Perhaps every generation does. But the challenge every generation faces is to arrive at some kind of wisdom, "by the awful grace of God." The jury is still out on the question of whether or not we have learned anything.