Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 49 years ago today, April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn. He was standing on the balcony just outside Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel. It was 6:01 PM and he had just leaned over the railing and was speaking to a gospel choir leader named Ben Branch—who was going to perform later that evening at a civil rights rally.
“I don’t want a long funeral…tell them not to talk too long.”
“Ben, you know Precious Lord, Take My Hand, right?” King asked. It was the preacher’s favorite hymn; he would occasionally call Mahalia Jackson when he was troubled and ask her to just sing it to him over the phone. Branch smiled up at King. “Sure do, Doc.”
“Then play it tonight, will you? Play it real pretty.”
At that instant, a single shot from a Remington 30-06 rifle tore into King’s jaw and imploded in his chest.
Just two months prior, on February 4, King had spoken to his congregation at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He was afflicted with a terrible fear of being killed throughout his thirteen years of stewarding the Civil Rights Movement—the young man suffered from intermittent bouts of depression and deep fatigue. He released some of his angst in a sudden turn of subject at the end of his Sunday sermon:
…And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, “What is it that I would want said?” And I leave the word to you this morning.
Then, the reverend mocked his own fame, and, as we listen to or read his remarkably candid words, we realize how truly humble he was. He didn’t even presume that anybody would appear to deliver a eulogy for him:
If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long…Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important! Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important! Tell them not to mention where I went to school.
Then, as his congregants responded with bursts of “Amen!” and “Yes!,” King, with no notes whatsoever, listed the essential things that defined his life and should also define ours:
- I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.
- I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
- I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.
- I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.
- And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.
- I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.
- I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
Then the courageous and forthright preacher came to a crescendo about his relationship with life and its moral imperatives:
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that’s all I want to say.
“And all of the other shallow things will not matter.” Here was a man facing certain death yet teaching us the concept of values over valuables. When will we—who face life—begin to truly live?