If you are over 55 the chances are good that you know where you were and what you were doing when the fatal shot was fired in Memphis, Tennessee, just like you remember when you heard the news of President John Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Do you remember?
I did not get the news until a day later. On vacation in Alishan—then one of the most remote high mountain areas of Taiwan—to see the famous cherry blossoms, I knew nothing of events down the mountain from this pre-modern resort. On April 5 our party boarded the narrow gauge railway, built by the Japanese in 1912 for logging area’s giant cedars. We sat on hard wood benches for the six hour trip down through three climate zones to reach Chiayi.
Somewhere near half way down there were two sets of tracks where the train coming up could pass the one coming down. When the two trains stopped, the morning newspapers available in Chiayi were distributed on the train coming down. I could manage speaking Chinese but my reading skills were limited. The only papers on the train were in Chinese, so I didn’t try to buy one. As Taiwanese around me opened their papers to read, I saw that the front page consisted of one huge Chinese character I recognized as “wang,” the character for “king.” I wondered why the front page of a major newspaper would be covered with this character. Was there some important news about a king somewhere? My curiosity overcame my embarrassment at having to admit to a Taiwanese that I couldn’t understand the headline.
When I inquired of the man sitting on the bench in front of me, he told me that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, and how sorry he was. He opened the paper and pointed to two related stories, one about riots all over the U.S. and another about an elementary school class somewhere that cheered when the teacher told them the news. The man shook his head sadly. He found the stories as hard to believe as I had in deciphering the characters.
I told the others in our party. None of us felt like talking about it. We rode on down from alpine forests through the banana trees and rice fields in silence. One of my first thoughts had been to recall the assassination of President Kennedy not five years earlier. Was our country going crazy? And, of course, that would not be the end of the assassinations in 1968.
Back in Taipei that night, I listened to Armed Forces Radio to get details for what was still not at all real to me. Dead? Dr. King? I heard an ominous premonition in Dr. King’s speech in support of the striking sanitation workers the night before he was shot.
Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. 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.Knowing the enemies he had, not just segregationists and the head of the FBI, but also a whole host of new enemies he made by opposing the Vietnam War and planning a march on Washington for justice for all poor people in just a few weeks, had made him a target for many. I’m not sure that even today we know why he was killed.
In the weeks, months, and years that followed, whenever I think of his death and what it meant to the nation and the world, tears come easily. I try not to focus on the tragedy and the premonition, but the promise, “But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
Earlier in his address that night, he had talked about Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan and what he thought it meant for those gathered in Memphis:
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness…I see the war in Iraq and what seems to me a systematic dismantling of civil liberties, the undermining of the basic institutions of our government, and I wonder, “Where would we be if Dr. King were still alive?” The cynic in my wants to cry out, “He would have killed him ten times over by now.” Thank goodness the cynic in my psyche doesn’t have the last word. I want to remember what King said next:
That's the question before you tonight. Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?" The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question.
Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.And thank you Dr. King for your thirty-nine years in our midst. Your example still challenges us to develop a dangerous unselfishness; and it has taken root in people like Greg Mortenson, who are determined to make America a better nation, to stand up for justice, and not acquiesce to injustice by doing nothing.
What do you remember?