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Citizen Dave: Forty-five years later, remembering MLK and RFK

That's what put Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on the evening of April 4, 1968, exactly forty-five years ago today.
Credit:Dave Cieslewicz
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Martin Luther King, Jr. was tired. So he stayed at the Lorraine Motel and sent Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy to the rally at the Mason Temple.

But it soon became clear that it was King the crowd wanted to hear. So he came, and on April 3, 1968 he delivered one of the most eerily prescient speeches in American history.

"I have seen the Promised Land!" King told the crowd amid rumbles from a thunderstorm outside. "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!"

Then, amid a cheering crowd, King slumped back in a folding chair as if he had just finished a long race. The end of that speech can be watched here.

The road that brought King back to Memphis was a bumpy one. A week earlier, he had come to lead a peaceful march on March 28 in support of striking sanitation workers. These workers wore simple placards that stated poignantly: "I AM A MAN."

But it was 1968, and by that time some were growing impatient with King's insistence on peaceful protest, and then there were those who just wanted an excuse to cause trouble. So, at that march some of the crowd got out of control and started to break windows and cause other mayhem. King's aides got him out of there quickly.

The resulting backlash from the white media was brutal. King was portrayed as having incited a riot and then quickly leaving town. Despite the urging of his aides to just let it go and move on, King insisted that he had to go back.

And that's what put Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on the evening of April 4, 1968, exactly forty-five years ago today. King was getting ready to go to dinner, and was on the balcony of the hotel trading barbs with Jackson and others in the parking lot below.

"Jesse, is that how you dress for dinner?" he poked at Jackson.

"I got my appetite on, doc, and that's all I need," Jackson replied.

Seconds later a single shot rang out and King lay dying on the balcony of a second rate motel in Memphis.

At about that time, a little after 6 p.m., Bobby Kennedy was boarding a plane for the short flight from Muncie to Indianapolis, where he was to open his local presidential campaign headquarters and speak at a rally at 17th and Broadway in the heart of Indianapolis' black ghetto.

Kennedy had been informed that King had been shot, but he didn't know that he would be dead by the time his plane touched down in Indianapolis. An aide came aboard after landing and shared the news with him.

Kennedy and King had had a complicated relationship. As Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy had tapped King's phone. He viewed King as a political problem for his brother, pushing John Kennedy too far too fast on civil rights. The men shared common goals, but no one could say they were close friends.

Bobby Kennedy sat in the plane alone for awhile composing his thoughts, then delivered a brief statement at the airport. Then he went to 17th and Broadway despite warnings from the police chief that he couldn't be protected.

"I could take my wife and family and we could sleep in the middle of the street at 17th and Broadway, and there would be no problem," he told the police chief. "If you can't do that, it's your problem."

This next part is hard to imagine. Much of the crowd already assembled and waiting for Kennedy did not know of King's death. In an age before cell phones, they had arrived before the news got out and they were cut off from the world. The crowd near the flatbed truck that had been set up for Kennedy was mostly white, made up of already committed RFK supporters. The rest of the crowd arriving later was mostly black residents of the neighborhood. They already knew of King's death, but it's a telling sign of the racial divides of the time that they didn't communicate that to the white Kennedy supporters that they now surrounded.

Young men at the back of the crowd were ready to act out violently. Knives, guns and chains could be seen.

Kennedy arrived and climbed aboard the flatbed in the middle of a cold drizzle, wearing his brother's overcoat. An aide thrust some talking points at him, but Kennedy took the paper and held it without ever looking at it.

"I have some very sad news for all of you," he began. "And I think sad news for all of our citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee."

The crowed erupted in screams. Then Kennedy went on to deliver, just as King had twenty-four hours earlier, one of the finest extemporaneous speeches in American history. An excellent book on the eighty-two days of RFK's campaign for president is The Last Campaign by Thurston Clarke.

Kennedy's speech can be watched here.

Kennedy goes on to quote from memory a poem by Aeschylus, reminding the crowd of his terrible personal loss just five years earlier:

Even in our sleep
Pain which we cannot forget
Falls drop by drop
Upon our heart.

Until in our own despair
Against our will
Comes wisdom
Through the awful grace
Of God.

He concludes by quoting the ancient Greeks.

"Let's commit ourselves to what the Greeks wrote: To tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world."

We struggle today in our own community with some racial divisions, particularly as it relates to our schools.

Forty-five years after these trying events, it would be wise to quietly remember them, and to reflect on them, and to move forward as best we can to get to the Promised Land and to make gentle the life of this world.

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