36 years after MLK, deja vu


January 18, 2004|By Kathy Lally

The Sun's front page was crammed with news: The president was talking to the secretary-general of the United Nations in an effort to extricate America's military from battle; U.S. troops were dying in their war with insurgents; Washington was wrestling with a multibillion-dollar deficit; dreams of moon flight captivated the nation; crime and gun control were fiercely debated; presidential candidates were seeking nomination.

All that, however, was overshadowed by the terrible news of the day: A large headline across the entire top of The Sun's front page on April 5, 1968, reported on a crime that would change America:

Dr. King Killed By Sniper In Memphis

The article began:

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the apostle of non-violence in the American civil rights movement, was killed by a sniper's bullet here tonight.

The news on the rest of the page suggests that, 36 years later, America is immersed in many of the same issues: It is involved in a foreign war, where many Americans are dying; a budget deficit grows larger by the day; again, the president wants flight to the moon and beyond; gun control remains controversial; presidential candidates are seeking nomination.

Today, race relations in America are hardly perfect; but they have improved immeasurably since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the age of 39. Now his birthday - Jan. 15, 1929 - is a national holiday, celebrated tomorrow, on the third Monday in January. It is a holiday that offers a small testament to the change that he brought about with his life.

Here is how the King Center in Atlanta, established by his widow, Coretta Scott King, describes its significance:

"The King Holiday honors the life and contributions of America's greatest champion of racial justice and equality, the leader who not only dreamed of a color-blind society, but who also led a movement that achieved historic reforms to help make it a reality.

"On this day we commemorate Dr. King's great dream of a vibrant, multiracial nation united in justice, peace and reconciliation; a nation that has a place at the table for children of every race and room at the inn for every needy child. We are called on this holiday, not merely to honor, but to celebrate the values of equality, tolerance and interracial sister and brotherhood he so compellingly expressed in his great dream for America."

Change has never been easy in America. King supporters struggled mightily simply to have a holiday in his name.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, introduced a bill to create the holiday four days after King was killed. It took until 1983 for Congress to enact the law, which established the holiday as of 1986.

According to reports from Congressional Quarterly, proponents of the holiday argued that it would give King and the civil rights movement the serious recognition they deserved. Opponents claimed that, as the 10th paid federal holiday, the measure would cost too much.

"What do you mean `cost'?" demanded U.S. Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, a Baltimore Democrat. "What was the cost of keeping us blacks where we were?"

President Ronald Reagan signed the law Nov. 2, 1983. King, he said, had "changed America forever."

America, many would argue, has not changed nearly enough. But it does have this holiday, dedicated to a man and his dream.

One of the most eloquent testimonies to Dr. King was made by the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who was told of the murder while he was campaigning in Indianapolis. In an extemporaneous speech, he said:

"I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.

"Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.

"In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black - considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible - you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization - black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.

"Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love. ...

"My favorite 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.'

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