Two legacies, 50 years later
Marshall Keeble was calling sinners home at a 1939 gospel…
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — We don’t often think of Martin Luther King Jr. as a man who ever wavered in his resolve to crusade for civil rights.
But, like all of us, he had moments when he considered giving up the fight.
Jesse Jackson talked about one of those moments as he addressed a crowd of dignitaries, activists, reporters and politicians at the old Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis, now home of the National Civil Rights Museum. Fifty years ago, on the hotel’s second-floor balcony, King’s life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet. He was 39. I was 8.
A half-century later, the company I work for was a sponsor of the commemoration, and I was lucky enough to snag a ticket. Amid the chaotic scene — yelling preachers plus a noisy helicopter and a buzzing drone flying overhead — Jackson talked about the man he stood next to on that balcony back in 1968 during a strike by the city’s sanitation workers.
“I’ve had a migraine headache for three days,” King told Jackson and other advisers, days before traveling to Memphis. “I thought maybe I should just quit. Maybe I have done as much as I can do in 13 years. We won Montgomery, we won Birmingham, we are winning in Chicago, we won in Selma. We are making progress.
“He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”
— Matthew 26:39, New Living Translation
“Maybe it is enough.”
Let this cup pass from me.
Another of King’s friends, Andrew Young, said, “Dr. King, don’t talk that way.”
King interrupted, “Andy, don’t say ‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace,” referencing words of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. “Let me talk.”
“We got real quiet,” Jackson said.
Then King said, “Maybe I can’t turn around because Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman would not understand — those who never gave up. I can’t turn around.”
He thought about fasting to the point of death, following the methods of one of his heroes, Gandhi. But then his mood changed, Jackson said, and he resolved to stop in Memphis on his way to Washington.
Not my will, but yours be done.
You can sense that resolve in the speech, full of biblical imagery, that King delivered in Memphis just 24 hours before his death:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” he said. “Longevity has its place. But I am not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I have looked over. And I have 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 am happy tonight. I am not worried about anything. I am not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
We all have moments of doubt, moments when we think about turning back. So did Martin Luther King Jr. Jesus understands because he experienced the same thing — and then some.
Knowing that gives me peace.
Another preacher at the commemoration urged all of us to carry on King’s legacy.
“It would be shameful if faith leaders did not pick up the mantle that fell here 50 years ago,” he said. “We cannot wait another 50 years to take action against injustice and poverty.”
What will our legacy be? Will we follow the teachings of Jesus and be peacemakers? Will we practice sympathy, feeling for others, or experience empathy, feeling with others?
There was no nation, no corporation, no agency authorizing or endorsing King’s message. He had no political status. He was not approved by the establishment to create change.
Remember that everything King accomplished was done with the same resource that’s available to you and me — the truth.
Kent Blake lives in the Memphis metro area with his wife, Jennifer. He is a member of the Germantown Church of Christ in Tennessee and works in organizational development and information technology.
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