This Easter Sunday marked the 53rd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination when he was shot at 39-years-old, April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of a Memphis motel. Although he stood in the shadow of death for several years, he feared not.
“I was in Harlem when I heard the news,” recalled Abiodun Oyewole, Last Poets founding member. “I took it personal and wanted to become violent because he stood on the platform of non-violence and was preaching peace and love, and for them to take him out like that, I just felt it really hurt.”
As Dr. King delivered riveting dissertations the last couple years he’d often forewarn audiences that they may have to take the baton from him and progress to the next stage without his physical presence.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” King stated at Memphis’ Bishop Charles Masonic Temple, April 3, 1968. “But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain,” King continued. “And I have looked over and I have 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.”
The reverend began exposing capitalism, militarism as well as racism.
“King’s assassination was an example of a shattering experience that propelled Black people into becoming more politically active and into searching for a deeper understanding of the Black Power movement,” wrote Kevin Cokley in the Dallas Morning News. “For many, King’s assassination aroused what had been a sometimes muted yet simmering anger fueled by injustice toward Black Americans.”
Approximately 50,000 federal troops deployed throughout cities nationwide in the largest unrest of the 1960s, where 39 people were killed and 3,500 were injured.
“When white America killed Dr. King last night, she declared war on us. It would have been better if she had killed Rap Brown … or Stokely Carmichael,” said Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture. “But when she killed Dr. King, she lost it. He was the one man in our race who was trying to teach our people to have love, compassion and mercy for white people.”
King was revealing systematic racism and white supremacy, as unrest permeated America.
“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” King wrote in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
“For many of us who felt that we were being treated unjustly, he spoke for us,” Abiodun explained. “That was a day I’ll never forget because I became conscious about becoming a Black nationalist. It was a very pivotal point in our history. Harlem was about to go up in smoke. This country was about to turn to ashes. Nobody could understand why a man of peace was shot down like that. The whole atmosphere was let’s rebel, let’s burn Harlem down. The killing of Dr. King killed the Civil Rights Movement and opened the door for Black Power to exist.”