The Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. on His Son’s Legacy
"M.L. had chosen to do was unquestionably right."
As the 1960s unfolded, the great well of passion stored up in this country for so long simply spilled over. M.L. and A.D. were moving the South with their efforts and those of the young men and women who marched America far beyond its own expectations for a time. And whether the location was Albany, Georgia, or Birmingham, Alabama, or Chicago, Illinois, the message was clear. The cause of integration in America was served by the nation’s aristocrats, farmers and students, by workers and preachers, men and women, young and old. The costs were accepted when they came and they were often very high. But we moved through.
Ivan Allen, who succeeded Hartsfield as mayor, had the courage to stay in office for a couple of terms, and it took courage through the 60s. The Voters’ League was with him and with Sam Massell, the city’s first Jewish mayor, who succeeded him. And coming into the present, Atlanta has a black mayor, Maynard Jackson, whose grandfather, John Wesley Dobbs, and I labored together in the 30s and 40s to make it possible for our people to vote. I’ve supported that line of succession with the long-term feeling that it may be the most interesting series of city officials in the nation’s history. So I have lived in Atlanta, and go on doing so.
I also lived to be at Oslo, Norway, to bear witness when M.L. received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964. And I prayed on the plane trip over there that the Lord would keep me humble, the son of a sharecropper and father of a man who, at the age of 35, had been presented the most prestigious of world awards. God surely had looked down into Georgia. And He must have said, Well, here are people I will give a mission and see how well they can carry it out. And I felt He must have looked down into Oslo, Norway, and simply said, Yes, they have shouldered the weight part of the way. A people had been led by a young man who could have found comfort elsewhere, yet stayed where he was needed, bearing witness. And as M.L. stood receiving the Nobel Prize, and the tears just streamed down my face, I gave thanks that out of that tiny Georgia town I’d been spared to see this and so much else. M.L. was my co-pastor now, and A.D. would soon be joining us in serving Ebenezer. I knew the movement was far from finished with its work, but I did feel M.L. had given so much, reached so deeply inside himself to be up in the front lines, where the glory was thought to be, but where danger held the real dominion.
Killing is a contagion. It begins, then rushes like fire across oil, raging through emotions out of control. America will have to remember the early 60s when the guns came out, when small children were blown to pieces while in church, and the blood seemed destined to flow until it became a river. The nation seemed to lose its way, as though it stumbled for a while through some dense forest where nothing could be seen clearly. How could we not have realized what was coming when those four young girls were killed by the explosion at their church in Birmingham? Was it not any clearer when civil-rights workers began disappearing, and when Medgar Evers, over in Mississippi, was shot down without any real concern about punishing the man who supposedly murdered him? How could a nation have not understood the terrible path it was walking when the President of the United States could be gunned down while riding in an open car through an American city?
The turmoil continued. The 60s were a time of battle for jobs and housing and the winning over of whites, who came now to understand how their lives, too, were being bent out of shape.
What we learn, with God’s help, is that there is no safety. Therefore, there can be no danger we are not willing to face. A great passion stirred this nation in the 60s, bringing violence and rage with it, but focusing on the hypocrisy that was at the root of America’s racial condition. Our struggle against that racist part of the nation’s personality was recognized, in some instances, more quickly and with a great deal more understanding in other parts of the world than it was at home.
When M.L. asked me to join him in 1964 at Oslo for the Nobel ceremonies, all over Europe folks had been clearly aware of what my son was trying to accomplish against enormous odds. But in the United States, a campaign to destroy his leadership was conducted within the government. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, made no secret of the fact that he held M.L. and his work in contempt. And the Civil Rights Movement received little active support from church leaders, many of them close enough to the struggle to see how important M.L.’s nonviolent protests had become among young people. When he was in jail, there were those who turned their backs, who criticized and rebuked him. He carried on.
It was a time when strong churchmen needed to reach out to embrace the American public as it huddled against its pain and tried to pretend that everything was still under control. We had moved to establish the sense of freedom any people must have to remain civilized.
I had entered civic affairs as a young man because I thought everyone wanted a better world and that nobody would have one if I didn’t put a shoulder to all the wheels that turned justice and dignity. A preacher, as I understood the term, was called for life. And there was a wondrous harvest in those fruitful years. But I could hear the ticking that was fast replacing the American heartbeat in our daily lives. And as M.L. expanded the movement, I became more and more concerned and less and less able to get him to pull back even for a time. Bunch was deeply affected, of course. She grew ever more apprehensive as her sons became rooted in the struggle and the cause.
By 1968, there was great anxiety throughout our family. No matter how much protection of any sort a person has, it will not be enough if the enemy is hatred that cannot be turned around. Not even the forces of law can control such hatred in a society. When evil is organized, it becomes a cup more bitter than the one given Jesus . . .
In April 1968, my sons went to Memphis to help organize a struggle by the city’s sanitation workers to achieve better wages and working conditions. I wondered about M.L.’s involvement in this, whether or not he was spreading his concerns and his energies too thin. But again he was right. There could be no real separation between exploiting a man because of his color and taking advantage of his economic condition to control him politically. Exploitation didn’t need to be seen only in terms of segregation. It involved all people, white and black, in the continuing human drive toward freedom, toward personal dignity within a just society. In Memphis, M.L.’s joint efforts with the workers brought out the old charge that he was, inside, more Communist than Baptist, which may have been the silliest thing anybody ever said about any person in America.
M.L. had been able to convince his brother, who was extremely skeptical in the beginning, that he too could make a difference in the kind of America that would enter the 21st century. The nation could be changed. The cracks in the armor of racist attitudes were visible all over the South. Maybe the time had been ripe before, but M.L. could see that now was an excellent moment in history to move a nation beyond itself. He sensed that Americans would respond emotionally to what he was now doing, that their passions could be cooled, then turned around into a force that would make the country into the place it should always have been. We have the resources, he would explain to me. We have the means, and the human energy needed is at its peak. . . .
The tension of those months took a heavy toll on Bunch, who was always aware of the pressure both the boys were under in their daily lives. The sound of a telephone, our doorbell ringing, any call that brought with it some news, edged up on us like a series of loud, sudden alarms. M.L. knew he had to share with his mother the changing nature of events as they involved him. Each moment he was away, out of touch with her, became an eternity of waiting for the next indication of any kind that he was all right.
He came to Atlanta and had dinner one evening with his mother and me. Some of the things he’d told me earlier came as no surprise, but both of us understood how difficult the information was going to be for Bunch to handle. Several reliable sources, both private and from within the federal government, concluded that attempts would soon be made on M.L.’s life. Money was involved. Professional killers were being recruited.
After dinner, the three of us sat out on our patio and enjoyed the late-setting sun of a warm, clear evening. Had I chosen M.L.’s words, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so blunt. He felt, though, that out of respect for his mother, he couldn’t be less than candid with her. “Mother,” he said, “there are some things I want you to know.”
“I have to go on with my work, no matter what happens now, because my involvement is too complete to stop.”
She didn’t want to listen, not then, on that quiet Sunday when it was so good to laugh about childhood, and remember tears easily replaced with laughter back when everything seemed so much less dangerous. “There’s a chance, Mother, that someone is going to try to kill me, and it could happen without any warning at all.” M.L. said this quickly, then stood up and walked to the far end of the patio. We sat silently, knowing that for this moment at least there couldn’t be any words. The same emotions that caused Bunch and me to urge M.L. to leave the movement more than ten years before were all still there. But saying these things now could bring no relief, only an intensity to the suffering we all carried. The great weight of that, I still believe, came from the certainty all of us had that what M.L. had chosen to do was unquestionably right.
We had been aware of the dangers, each out of our own experiences with the South we knew—M.L., his mother and I. A time had come. To avoid it was impossible, even as avoiding the coming of darkness in the evening would have been impossible. But word was moving through our part of the world. People were reporting conversations overheard in restaurants, in taverns, on street corners, that indicated serious efforts to plot against M.L. as a leader of this movement that was changing so much in America so quickly. Police departments had been alerted. The talk of hired killers being on the loose and following M.L. was now past the stage of rumor and hearsay. Police officers who had never been in sympathy with our cause were nevertheless concerned about anything happening to my son in one of their towns or cities. It simply wouldn’t have looked good, I suppose, for all these law-and-order advocates to be unprepared for lawbreakers whose intention was to commit murder.
“But I don’t want you to worry over any of this,” M.L. said, returning to his mother’s side. “I have to go on with my work, no matter what happens now, because my involvement is too complete to stop. Sometimes I do want to get away for a while, go someplace with Coretta and the kids and be Reverend King and family, having a few quiet days like any other Americans. But I know it’s too late for any of that now. And if mine isn’t to be a long life, Mother, Dad, well then I respect that, as you’ve always taught us to respect it as God’s will.”
We ached when he left that evening, deep inside, and though we tried to comfort each other with small talk about neighbors and church folks and even our earliest hours together, nothing could remove the unspoken pain we were sharing.