Today, I’m only one of a chorus of voices commemorating the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even if my words get lost amongst the pack of posts, blogs, articles, memes, and quotes – it’s ok. Fifty years ago today, America’s greatest champion was silenced.
We lost the man, but thank goodness his message lives on! (More on this later)
Last October, I had the occasion to attend an event at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Prior to dinner and the keynote, attendees had an opportunity to take the museum tour. Though it was my not my first time, you wouldn’t be able to tell by the tears.
The entire tour is a virtual walk through the history of black people in America. But there are stops along the way. Stops that make you gasp and question humanity and God’s role in it. The museum takes great pains to ensure you get a healthy dose of dehumanization by offering visitors interactive opportunities to walk, sit, and stand in the shoes of those who dared to defy the law of the day.
The bus, the lunch counter, and the Upper Room
It’s strange to see a city bus as a museum exhibit, especially one that talks. I swear there are ghosts on that bus and with one step you can hear the ghost bus driver summon you to the back of the bus. I’m sorry, bruh – what was that? Even though it’s not real, it is painful to hear those words directed at you. I couldn’t help think of my parents and grandparents who knew the dehumanization in real time, not through some museum exhibit. You become painfully aware that these horrors happened just yesterday.
After the getting off the bus, visitors are allowed to take a seat at the lunch counter. Here you can watch footage of peaceful protestors sit at lunch counters while being spat on and brutally beat. For sitting there.
But it’s the final stop of the tour that takes you to another place. Visitors are met with the haunting, soulful sound of Mahalia Jackson singing The Upper Room which makes you feel as if you have, in fact, made it to the Upper Room. Then you see it, the hotel room where Dr. King would spend his last night on this earth. A few more steps and you are looking outside the hotel room where Dr. King would take his last breath. It’s too much for the senses. The man, the enormous sacrifice, the blood pooling on the pavement; up close and personal with the tragedy of it all.
Remembering Dr. King’s Words and the Courage Behind Them
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of his assassination, we must also honor the 51st anniversary of Dr. King’s speech Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence. On April 4, 1967, Dr. King publicly denounced the Vietnam War, fatally damaging his relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson and losing favor with other civil rights leaders and long time supporters. In a recent tweet, Dr. King’s daughter Bernice King stated, “At the time Daddy was killed, a poll reflected that he was the most hated man in America. Most hated. Many who quote him now & use him to deter justice would likely hate him too if they truly studied.”
I’ve written about Beyond Vietnam a number of times because it shows a different Dr. King. America’s champion of peace ventured outside of what was expected and challenged policies that threatened peace not just on American soil but also on foreign soil. At the beginning of his speech, Dr. King makes it clear that his position as clergy and tireless civil rights advocate was not only not at odds with his stance on the Vietnam War, but that it made perfect sense. “We were taking black young men who have been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles ways to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
Also, in the speech, Dr. King shows compassion for our brothers and sisters beyond America’s borders:
“So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers. – Dr. King
Please take a moment to read Beyond Vietnam in its entirety.