How old was Martin Luther King Jr. when he was shot down tragically in 1968? I was 10 years old when he was assassinated, and remember the day well, yet I was surprised today when I realized that Dr. King was only 39 when he died.
He was born Jan. 15, 1929, and was killed in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968. If still alive, he would just have celebrated his 81st birthday. It seems amazing to me that my father – who marked his 84th birthday on New Year’s Eve with a party at his nursing home bedside – is older than the great civil rights leader would have been.
I recall King as a wise and venerable figure on the TV news and the front pages of daily papers. Although young, I read his words, and knew that they made sense. Black people are equal and should be treated as such in law, and in the hearts of all Americans. Our nation betrayed the spirit of its founding and the dictates of the Christian religion by allowing slavery to persist under the Constitution. It took a Civil War to eradicate slavery, yet it took another century and a leader of peace to wrench segregation from the heart of America. Like so many men of peace throughout history, King was met with violent resistance and a violent death.
He seemed always a man not only older than his age, but wiser than his time. He won the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35. He trusted God and spoke in prophetic terms. He also trusted, in a qualified way, in the American people and the spirit of our nation’s founding. This trust allowed him to see a day when that spirit would overcome segregation, and allowed him to cite the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in his great “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in 1963. It allowed him to conclude that prophetic speech by seeing a day:
“when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
I picked up a children’s book yesterday at our local library about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. I want my two grade school boys to know something about those days, and to know how important they are in our nation’s history, and in my own life.
As a father, I want them to be men of strength and conviction, yet men of peace, and not follow the way of the bully.