[This is the fourth and final article on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s presence in my life over the years. I would like to hear how he has been present in your life, before and after his death. The quotes from Dr. King below may all be found in context here.]
On April 2, 1968, four of us boarded a small train on a narrow-gauge railroad in Chai-yi in south central Taiwan. Our destination was what had once been an old Japanese resort at Ali-shan high in the ridge of mountains that takes up much of the land space on the island. On April 5th, after the luxuriating isolation with the cherry blossoms in full bloom providing needed physical and mental distance from realities in Taipei, we boarded the small train for the trip back.
We sat on hard wood benches for the six hour trip down through three climate zones to reach Chia-yi. Somewhere near the halfway point 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 that came up were distributed on the train going 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 people 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 that I couldn’t understand the headline.
“Please sir,” I said in Chinese to a man sitting in front of me beside his wife and two children, “I do not understand the headline. Did a ‘king’ die?”
He turned around and looked at me. “It is your country’s Dr. King. He has been assassinated,” the man said.
Then, he opened the inside of the paper and pointed to two articles on page two. “Can you read?” he asked politely.
I nodded my head. I could read the headlines well enough to know that Dr. King had been shot in Memphis and that there were race riots all over the country. The second article was about an elementary school class somewhere that cheered when the teacher told them the news. The man shook his head as if he found the stories as hard to believe as I had in deciphering the characters.
I shared the news with the others, two of whom were friends with roots in Tennessee. We wept and fell into silence. What could we say? The past few carefree days were eclipsed and a dark shadow fell across the days ahead.
In my mind, as I had often done through the years, I began a one-sided conversation with Dr. King:
Martin, I remember when you said that it was past time for desegregation, and I said “You’re right, but you’ve got to give us more time to get ready.” You were right, and you pulled me along.Self-reproach, I reminded myself, is good if it results in changed behavior; otherwise it just drags down the soul. I remembered with gratitude how Dr. King had changed my life, and what a difference he had made in my work in Taiwan. His 1963 words from Birmingham still echoed in my conscience: “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” as did his words six months earlier in 1967 when he confronted those who were ready to resort to violent acts to achieve justice: “We must reaffirm our commitment to nonviolence.” Those two admonitions had become bedrock for me in Taiwan. But that’s another story.
I remember when you started the Poor People’s Campaign and I whispered to you that important as that was for people of all races, I worried that it would dilute the focus of the civil rights movement. You reminded me that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” You were right again. And you pulled me along.
Just a year ago, on that day at Riverside Church in New York City when you announced your opposition to the Vietnam War, I whispered again, “Martin, this is going to hurt all you have done for civil rights. Let other’s carry this fight.” And you responded at how sad these words made you: “… such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.” And of course you were right.
You’d think I would learn, but just three weeks ago when you decided to get involved in the sanitation workers strike, I wondered if your intervention on behalf of labor in Memphis wouldn’t limit your influence. I already guessed what you would say, and as you have been all along, you were right.
Dr. King has been gone forty-three years and it is impossible to know what he would say about the issues we face today. But his presence is still with us. We are engaged in wars that I believe cannot be justified. The first step in seventy years to make our health care system more just and effective is assailed as “job killing”. The atmosphere of political discussion is as hate-focused as it was on Dr. King in his day. His words from jail in Birmingham in 1963 seem as relevant for our generation as his:
“More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”I believe we are a better people because of Dr. King. Because of him, a lot of people stood up. That’s why, in the words of J. B. F. Wright’s old gospel song
As I travel on life's pathwayKnow not what the years may holdAs I ponder, hope grows fonderPrecious mem'ries flood my soul.