Early morning, April fourthThirty-nine years ago today, a sad chapter in history was written with an assassin’s bullet. It didn’t happen in early morning, as Bono sings, but at 6 PM as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his entourage prepared for dinner.
A shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last---
They took your life
They could not take your pride
-"Pride (In the Name of Love) by U2
As the life’s blood ebbed from his veins and onto the cold, unforgiving concrete of the Lorraine Motel’s balcony, he departed a world forever changed from the world of Jim Crow that he was born into.
When he was born, black children were forced to attend inferior schools, guaranteeing that they could never gain a solid foothold in American society. A black passenger on any form of public transportation was forced to sit in the back, leaving a shorter walk for whiter passengers. A black man could work in the same fields as a white man, labor just as hard, and walk away at the end of the day without the money to feed his children. Or the white man could simply refuse to hire him.
By the time he died, he departed a changed America. Schools had been integrated, and the seeds of equality had been sown, if not yet in full bloom.
So very few people leave the world around them changed, save for their nearest and dearest friends and family. Their lives begin and end in obscurity. Dr. King was not one of them. When one looks at all the changes that took place directly because of him, it becomes difficult to believe that he achieved all of this in thirteen short years.
He told us of his dreams, where the sons of slaves and the sons of former slave owners would sit together at the table of brotherhood. He told us he might not get there with us.
And true enough, he didn’t. Whether one believes it was James Earl Ray or not, someone that feared nothing more than equality for all mankind saw fit to rip him from our world.
Dr. King’s message was a radical one, not unlike that of Jesus Christ almost two millennia before. And just like Jesus Christ, he was cut down for that message by someone that had much to lose if Dr. King’s vision became a reality.
As much as Dr. King accomplished, if he was still with us today, he would look at the world around him and take note not only of what we have accomplished, but where we have failed.
His hard work, his sacrifice, did not spell the end of the American ghetto. The backlash of those who would not live in a racially mixed society has spawned white flight, creating and perpetuating new American ghettos in its wake. Subconscious racism is still racism; Most sociologists studying white flight place the “magic number” at 6%--- Once 6% of the homes in a neighborhood are owned by blacks, the white residents start to feel “outnumbered”. Their fear of lowered property values becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as they unload their homes at fire sale prices and move further out into the suburbs. And sadly, as with many other aspects of American life, the most egregious are rewarded--- The earliest to move and spawn the white flight are the only ones that get fair market value from their homes.
There is a zip code in the city where Dr. King breathed his last that has an infant mortality rate higher than most Third World nations. A lethal combination of poverty, pollution, crime, and reduced access to healthcare robbed 202 babies of their lives before they saw their first birthday in 2002. Many of their bodies are buried in Shelby County’s Potters Field, which stands almost directly in the shadow of Wolfchase Galleria, our greatest monument to the gods of commerce.
Poverty grips many of the streets in the city where he was killed. And just like animals in the wild, hungry predators single out the weak and the wounded, preying upon them with tax preparation scams, furniture rental ripoffs, exorbitant check cashing prices, home improvement scams, and a million other con games designed to separate the poor and the uneducated from their hard earned money.
Thank you, Dr. King, for your hard work, and your sacrifice. It is now up to the rest of us to see to it that this sacrifice was not made in vain.