Reflection May 19, 2019

"Recalling Dr. King’s Assassination" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth

     On April 4, we had a special service to remember the killing of Dr. King on April 4, 1968. I’m including here some of my words from that service.

     1968 was a year many of us who endured it would like to forget. But we forget the tragedies and brutalities of that year to our peril.

     Was I there in Memphis, Tennessee when Dr. King was brutally slain at the Lorraine Motel? No, I was not there. But I’ve been to the Lorraine Motel now that it’s been transformed to a National Civil Rights Museum.

     I tell my students at Moraine Valley Community College that if they go to Memphis to bypass going to Graceland. Instead they should get over to the former Lorraine Motel. Going to that sacred place may well spark something within them, something in their soul, that Graceland can’t possibly spark.

     April 4, 1968, we forget this date to our peril. But let’s not forget April 4, 1967 when Dr. King first came out against the Vietnam War. This stand cost Dr. King much of his support, not only across the country but also among African Americans.

     We all probably know the ending of Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” sermon the night before his killing. And, yes, I don’t say “his death” - I say “his killing, his assassination, his slaughter.”

     Dr. King was suffering from a bad cold the evening of April 3rd. He went to bed and sent his right hand man, Ralph Abernathy, to address the rally at the Memphis Masonic Temple. But the crowd wanted to hear Dr. King so he got out of bed and came to the rally. Dr. King didn’t have a formal speech so all his words came straight from his heart; a heart that would be stilled less than 24 hours later.

     Let us hear again these words from that final sermon:

     “The world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working … Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And whoever they are assembled today, the cry is always the same: We want to be free. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be!”

     No, I was not there at the Lorraine Motel that terrible day but I was there in Marquette Park on August 5, 1966 when Dr. King marched. I was not marching with him that day. But what I saw that terrible day was the unhinged hatred of my Marquette Park neighbors.

     My twin brother, Jack, a few days after Dr. King’s killing, landed in Vietnam to endure a year of hellish horror. Jack had married his beloved Sue on March 30 so she might get the $10,000 if Jack didn’t survive the deadly jungles of Vietnam. He served with the 101st Airborne Division, which suffered half of all the Vietnam War fatalities. (If you haven’t done so, please visit the Harold Washington Library and see the exhibit Above and Beyond, a sculpture of over 58,000 dog tags of those Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam.)

     I wasn’t in Memphis on April 4, 1968, but I was immersed in the insanity and brutality of the August, 1968, Democratic Convention here in Chicago. 1968 was a hard year to endure. Many of us remember well the fires and rioting here in Chicago after Dr. King’s killing.

     As Jimi Hendrix powerfully sang in 1968, doing a cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, inspired by the prophet Isaiah, chapter 21, verses 5 -9:

     There are many here among us now, who fear that life is but a joke. But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate. So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late … There must be some way out of here. There must be some way out of here.

     1968 was a year that drove many of us to near despair. It was a year bathed in blood, awash in violence. And yet is not every year, is not every age, the same?

     Let me end my weak words with a challenging reflection from Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal, a recent book by the Harvard, Oxford, Yale educated historian and U.S. Senator Ben Sasse:

     We are relational beings, and we’re meant for community. We’re meant to be rooted, not rootless. We’re meant to be together, pursuing goals and dreams in common. But these are much harder to come by in an increasingly transient world ... Our associations and healthy local institutions are withering (Pastor Thomas addition: this most assuredly includes our churches and places of worship).

     The Rotary Clubs, a far more representative picture of American historically than a screaming cable news show, are in collapse. Appalachia is being hollowed out by hopelessness ... Ultimately, it’s not legislation we’re lacking; it’s the tight bonds that give our lives meaning, happiness, and hope. It’s the habits of heart and mind that make us neighbors and friends. At the end of the day, it’s love. And when a bunch of “them” are joined by love, and by purpose, “they” can become “we.”         

     So let us walk these difficult roads together. As Dr. King taught us the night before he was killed: “You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite formula for doing it and what was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever slaves get together, Pharaoh cannot hold the slaves in slavery.” Amen!


Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor

Morgan Park

 Baptist Church

11024 S. Bell Avenue 

Chicago, IL 60643