Dyson Explores How MLK's Death Changed America

Martin Luther King i i

hide captionRev. Martin Luther King, Jr. waves to the crowd after delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington in August, 1963.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Martin Luther King

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. waves to the crowd after delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington in August, 1963.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Every January, the nation celebrates the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Friday marks the 40th anniversary of King's assassination in Memphis, Tenn. — and author Michael Eric Dyson argues that America needs to find the meaning in the civil rights leader's death as well.

Dyson's latest book, April 4, 1968, examines how King's death changed America and affected shifts in black leadership during the following four decades.

"You cannot hear the name Martin Luther King, Jr. and not think of death," Dyson writes. "You might hear the words 'I have a dream,' but they will doubtlessly only serve to underscore an image of a simple motel balcony, a large man made small, a pool of blood. For as famous as he may have been in life, it is — and was — death that ultimately defined him."

Remembering MLK's Prophetic 'Mountaintop' Speech

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his last public address, at the Mason Temple. i i

hide captionThe Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his last public address, at the Mason Temple, a Pentecostal church in Memphis, Tenn., April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination.

Bettmann/Corbis
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his last public address, at the Mason Temple.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his last public address, at the Mason Temple, a Pentecostal church in Memphis, Tenn., April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination.

Bettmann/Corbis
The Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles i i

hide captionThe Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles was in the Memphis church where King delivered his last speech.

Brooks Kraft/Corbis
The Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles

The Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles was in the Memphis church where King delivered his last speech.

Brooks Kraft/Corbis

On April 3, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his final public speech. In a crowded church in Memphis, Tenn., King spoke of the injustice felt by the city's sanitation workers, who were on strike protesting low pay and poor working conditions.

But, speaking hours before his assassination, the civil rights leader went beyond that subject, touching on death and his own mortality.

"There had been so many death threats against his life, especially since he had come out against the war in Vietnam," says the Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles, who was listening to King just a few feet away. "But he talked about death more that night than we'd heard him talk about it in a long while."

'Glad You Didn't Sneeze'

In 1958, King was stabbed in the chest with a letter opener by a deranged woman while autographing copies of his first book in a Harlem department store. The tip of the blade came so close to his aorta that his doctor said a sneeze would have killed King. While he was recovering, King received a letter from a teenage girl, who wrote, "I'm so glad you didn't sneeze."

Ten years later, in the speech at the Mason Temple, King took up that theme, saying if he had sneezed, he would not have been around in 1960, when students began sitting-in at lunch counters, or in subsequent years to see the freedom riders, the march in Selma and other key events in the civil rights movement.

The passage brought the crowd to its feet.

'He Took Us to the Mountaintop'

"Many of us, grown men, were crying," Kyles tells Renee Montagne. "We didn't know why we were crying. We had no way of knowing that would be the last speech of his life. And then he took us to the mountaintop ..."

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. 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 happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything, I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." — the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Kyles says he's "so certain" that King "knew he wouldn't get there, but he wouldn't tell us that. That would have been too heavy for us, so he softened it."

Afterward, "we had to help him to his seat behind that powerful, prophetic speech," Kyles says.

"He preached himself through the fear of death," Kyles says. "He just got it out of him. He just ... dealt with it. And we were just standing there. It was like, what did he know that we didn't know?"

A Dream Partially Fulfilled

Kyles, who still preaches in Memphis, says that while much of King's dream has been realized, there's much more to do.

When he speaks to people who were not alive or too young to remember King, Kyle says he tells them, "we're not going to get to the place where we can say, 'Dr. King's dream has been realized. Now we can go to the beach.' That's not going to happen. Much of it has been realized, but there is so much to do. But each generation will have its portion, and that helps to keep the dream alive."

Excerpt: 'April 4, 1968'

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America

1968 Book Cover
Michael Eric Dyson

hide captionAuthor Michael Eric Dyson teaches theology, English, and African American studies at Georgetown University. He was named one of the 100 most influential black Americans by Ebony magazine.

Michael Carr

You cannot hear the name Martin Luther King, Jr. and not think of death. You might hear the words "I have a dream," but they will doubtlessly only serve to underscore an image of a simple motel balcony, a large man made small, a pool of blood. For as famous as he may have been in life, it is – and was – death that ultimately defined him. Born into a culture whose main solace was Christianity's Promised Land awaiting them after the suffering of this world, King took on the power of his race's presumed destiny and found in himself the defiance necessary to spark change. He ate, drank, and slept death. He danced with it, he preached it, he feared it, and he stared it down. He looked for ways to lay it aside, this burden of his own mortality, but ultimately knew that his unwavering insistence on a non-violent end to the mistreatment of his people could only end violently....

From the time he began to speak out, King was haunted by death – mugged by the promise of destruction for seeking an end to black indignity and the beginning of equality with whites. After a few years spent up North acquiring his education, King chose to return to where he would be needed most in the coming years—the white-hot center of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement and Montgomery, Alabama. At twenty-six he took on the responsibilities of a Baptist pulpit, joining forces with the local NAACP, and dug in for the year-long bus boycott created to end the Jim Crow law of racial segregation in public transportation. During this conflict his house was bombed—his wife Coretta and their ten-week-old daughter Yolanda were home, but escaped injury. It was the first time King would be tested with violence aimed at his life, but far from the last. Later in the boycott a shotgun blast was fired into King's home. King did not capitulate, but instead he emerged from the ashes of these attempts as the true Phoenix of the newly minted movement. Once again, his mortality challenged, he accepted his calling without hesitation.

A couple of years after the boycott ended, King was in Harlem at Blumstein's department store signing Stride Toward Freedom, his account of the movement's success. From out of nowhere, a clearly disturbed black woman, Izola Ware Curry, sunk a letter opener into his chest after asking if he was Martin Luther King. Though considered an act of instability, this attack was still colored by Curry's irrational hatred of what King and the NAACP were trying to do, and by her own fear of being killed because of his constant stirring of the pot. Even so, it was one of the rare instances of black public hate directed at King, the kind that would later be famously associated with his colleague and competitor Malcolm X.

As he took flight to snip the bullying wings of Jim Crow, King ruffled the feathers of white racists who grew more determined to bring him down. There was striking physical intimidation of King. In a show of naked aggression, two white cops attempted to block his entry into a Montgomery courtroom for the trial of a man who had attacked his comrade Ralph Abernathy. Despite a warning from the cops, King poked his head inside the courtroom looking for his lawyer to help him get inside. His actions ignited their rage. The policemen twisted his arm behind his back and manhandled him into jail. King said the cops "tried to break my arm; they grabbed my collar and tried to choke me, and when they got me to the cell, they kicked me in." A photographer happened by to capture the scene. The shot of King – dressed in a natty tan suit, stylish gold wristwatch and a trendy snap-brim fedora – wincing as he is banished to confinement is an iconic civil rights image.

As King addressed the 1962 convention of his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a two hundred pound young white man rushed the stage and landed a brutal blow on his left cheek. The crowd reacted in hushed disbelief. The diminutive King never flinched or retreated, even as the young brute delivered several more blows, first to the side of his face as he stood behind King, and then two blows to his back. King gently spoke to his attacker as he continued to pummel his body. He knocked King backward as the orator dropped his hands – legendary activist Septima Clark, in attendance that day, said King let down his hands "like a newborn baby" – and faced his assailant head on.

Finally, SCLC staff leader Wyatt Tee Walker and others intervened as King pleaded, "Don't touch him! Don't touch him. We have to pray for him." King quietly assured the young man he wouldn't be harmed. The leader and his aides retreated to a private office to talk with his assailant, who was, King told the audience when he returned, a member of the American Nazi Party. As King held an ice-filled handkerchief to his jaw, he informed the crowd he wouldn't press charges. Most in attendance were amazed at King's calm as violence flashed.

Obviously nonviolence was more than a method and a creed; it answered assault with acts of steadfast courage.

Excerpted from Michael Eric Dyson's April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America published by Basic Civitas, April 2008. All rights reserved.

Books Featured In This Story

April 4, 1968
April 4, 1968

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America

by Michael Eric Dyson

Hardcover, 290 pages | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • April 4, 1968
  • Martin Luther King Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America
  • Michael Eric Dyson

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: