You Can’t Kill the Truth: Remembering Martin Luther King
“We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle to the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point. We’ve got to see it through. Be concerned about your brother. Either we go up together, or we go down together.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr., April 3, 1968
As 1968 dawned, the vision of peace and hope that had seemed so promising the year before during the so-called “Summer of Love” was splintering.
On January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong launched what is now known as the “Tet Offensive.” The powerful North Vietnamese forces attacked more than 30 South Vietnamese cities, including Saigon. The American military, which had earlier reported that most of Vietnam was secure and an end to the divisive war was in sight, was stunned.
With more and more Americans dying in rice paddies, it seemed as if the war would last forever. And Dwight Eisenhower’s warning of a military-industrial complex taking over the country, delivered a few years before in his Farewell Address to the Nation, took on greater weight.
Reports of civilian massacres by American troops soon began to surface, and by the summer of ’68, cynicism had set in among young people. Raised power fists and rebellion at universities and in the streets symbolized the moment. Many who believed that peace and understanding were going to change things, as I did, began to question such assumptions. Distrust and even a hatred of all in authority—the “establishment”—emerged as a universal sentiment among the young. “You gotta remember, establishment, it’s just another name for evil,” Beatle John Lennon would remind us years later. “The monster doesn’t care whether it kills all the students. It’s out of control.”
Trying to understand what was going on at the time was impossible, and many lost themselves in drugs and music. But these were only temporary, false respites from the grim reality of a world filled with violence, chaos and hate. It seemed as if we were being lied to on all fronts, and there were very few people we could believe—let alone believe in.
Martin Luther King was that clear moral voice that cut through the fog of distortion. He spoke like a prophet and commanded that you listen. King dared to speak truth to the establishment and called for an end to oppression and racism. A peace warrior in a world of war, King raised his voice against the Vietnam War and challenged the military-industrial complex.
Little did we know that his voice would be prematurely silenced, but King knew his days were numbered. He was a target, not only by racists who wanted to kill him but by his own government as well.
King was in Memphis fighting for the rights of striking sanitation workers when he delivered his last, and most apocalyptic, sermon on April 3, 1968, on the eve of his assassination. Just that morning, as he was leaving Atlanta, King’s plane had been delayed so that the airline could check all the bags, as well as the airplane—which had been under guard all night, to make sure they contained no bombs. Even the airlines seemed to understand the danger he was in.
However, King did not cower or hide away. He did not soften his message, hoping to pacify his enemies. He knew there was a larger force at work in his life. And that’s how he concluded his sermon—the last words he spoke in public:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. 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. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Forty years after King’s assassination, our nation is still plagued with wars, government surveillance and a military-industrial complex that feeds a national diet of warmongering.
And King, once a charismatic leader and voice of authority, has been memorialized in death to such an extent that younger generations recognize his face but miss out on his message. Yet he still speaks volumes to us today.
“Speaking truth in times of universal deceit is a revolutionary act,” George Orwell once said. Such was Martin Luther King. They may have killed the man, but his spirit of truth lives on. We would do well to learn from him how to speak truth to power.