Today marks 40th anniversary of the assassination of U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
Although I was just a three-year-old kid in South Carolina when he was shot and killed in Memphis, I grew up--like most of us-- learning more and more about the incredible impact he had on the South, on the country, on the world.
Several years ago, when I was participating in the Southern Festival of Books in Memphis, I stopped by the Lorraine Motel where he was assassinated. It was late, a summer night, and it was an eerie but stirring place, that motel with the old cars, the neon sign, the wreath--a site still emanating energy off the Richter scale of emotion.
Indeed, as I grow older, my admiration for Martin Luther King, Jr. grows, too. I am just beginning to realize the enormous strength it took to lead a nonviolent movement "behind the cotton curtain," to unite warring factions among and between the black and white communities, to take on unjust laws and a repressive government.
"Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness," he said, in his "Promised Land" speech.
And in listening to several of his speeches again last night--(His glittering eyes! His passion for the cause lights up his face, beams through the television, through You Tube, through the radio. Even the bites and clips on CNN make my eyes fill)--I am struck by his wisdom. The peacemakers and great thinkers in history influenced him: Jesus ("Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you."); Thoreau ("We can no longer lend our cooperation to an evil system."); and Mahatma Gandhi, whose example, according to the 1964 Nobel Prize Presentation Committee, "convinced him that it is possible to achieve victory in an unarmed struggle. In Gandhi's teaching he found the answer to a question that had long troubled him: How does one set about carrying out a social reform?"
Dr. King put it like this:
"Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force...I found in the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Gandhi... the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom."
Martin Luther King, Jr. was thirty-nine when he died. Thirty-nine! The strain of the struggle was already beginning to physically affect him. The medical examiner said he had the heart of a 60-year old man. But what a soul.Mindy Friddle is author of the novels The Garden Angel (St. Martin's Press/Picador) and Secret Keepers (forthcoming from St. Martin's Press/Picador). Visit her website and her blog, Novel Thoughts.