“April 4, shot rings out in the Memphis sky. Free at last, they took your life. They could not take your pride, in the name of love.” - U2

I’ve spent the last month in the United States visiting family and friends. I normally try to visit every couple of years, but, due to COVID, this has been my first visit since 2018. 

During my recent visits, I’ve stopped at places that interest me historically. This time I stopped in Memphis, Tennessee, to see the civil rights museum. The museum is at the Lorraine Motel, where Rev Martin Luther King, Jr, was assassinated on the evening of 4th April, 1968.

US Lorraine Motel

The Lorraine Motel, where Rev Martin Luther King, Jr, was assassinated on 4th April, 1968. The wreath marks where King was shot. PICTURE: Nils von Kalm.

 

"King was a prophet in the true Biblical sense of the word. He spoke truth to power in a way that was uncomfortable even for many of his own people. I remember a couple of years ago on the anniversary of his death, some challenging things being written about the fact that we tend to love King’s words about justice for African Americans, but we don’t like his prophetic words condemning poverty and the war in Vietnam."

The day before, I was driven past Mason Temple, a few blocks away from the Lorraine Motel. Mason Temple is where King have his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech. The speech is famous for many reasons, not least because in it, King seemed to eerily predict his own death. Less than 24 hours later he was gone.

I’ve read so much about King over the years. He’s long been one of my heroes. But actually being at those famous places brings it all to life for me. Of course, you know that these things really happened, but being there and seeing them for yourself just makes it more real.

It has also helped me realise that he was just a man, just a person like any of us. Reading about someone like King, or seeing old clips of his speeches, allows you to sort of romanticise it all, like he becomes some mythical person with almost Biblical mysticism. But he was just an ordinary man who wanted to serve his Lord. He participated in and led the same struggle that sadly still continues today for African Americans today. He was human; he had his failings, some of which have been well documented over the years. 

Being at historic places like the Lorraine Motel shows you that the struggle was real, that the struggle still is real, that there is still injustice for too many African Americans, for poor people in a country where the gap between rich and poor is growing ever wider, where, in a state like Florida, the government giving the right to vilify you if you’re trans is more important than solving homelessness and other disadvantage.

King was a prophet in the true Biblical sense of the word. He spoke truth to power in a way that was uncomfortable even for many of his own people. I remember a couple of years ago on the anniversary of his death, some challenging things being written about the fact that we tend to love King’s words about justice for African Americans, but we don’t like his prophetic words condemning poverty and the war in Vietnam. Some people say it was those words that got him killed; that it was a hit job by certain people in power. Definitely his popularity was very low at the time he was killed. I guess a prophet is never honoured in their home country. And his legend grew the moment he was killed.


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I always feel sad that the prophetic figures over the ages, those brave men and women who have spoken uncomfortable words to their own people, have always been taken out before their time. Gandhi was one (though he was old when he was killed), Bobby Kennedy was another, Joan of Arc, Oscar Romero, and of course Jesus himself, killed on the brutality of a Roman cross at 33 for bringing in a different kind of kingdom, one based around him and his love.

In a world and a church which too often insists on its own rights, the ultimate sacrifice of people like Martin Luther King exposes the pathetic nature of Christians standing up for our own freedoms at the expense of those of others. Love tends to do what King did. It’s what Jesus did on that cross. An innocent man living and speaking truth and love killed because he was a threat to the ruling powers. His murder exposed sin for what it is: impotent to deal with the problems of the world. 



King’s death was the same (please note that I’m not saying that King died for our sins or anything like that). It exposed the weakness of violence and the dignity of sacrificial love, the depth of love and the eternal nature and power of it. 

Being willing to die for what is right is a Christian virtue. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said that when God calls a person, He bids them come and die. When Jesus said that whoever wants to come after Him must die to self, take up their cross and follow Him, He meant what He said. He was calling people to a death sentence. 

Am I willing to die for what is right? Does following Jesus mean that much to me? Or is it not much more than being nice to people and maybe helping a neighbour out, or smiling in church on Sunday and giving the impression that your life is going great, praise the Lord?

How much are we willing to be brutally honest, to live with courage, to sacrifice for the sake of others, to be willing to die? It sounds crazy in a country like Australia, where we are way too comfortable for our own good. But be willing we must, to go to any lengths to follow Jesus. Otherwise we dare not call ourselves Christian. 

On that dark evening of 4th April, 1968, on that balcony outside Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Martin Luther King paid with his life. He paid with his life the price of following Jesus, whatever the cost. He showed the world what a true prophet is, what a true Christian is, what it means to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow. 

As the bullet entered his neck and ripped the life from his mortal body, I can imagine Jesus welcoming him and saying with the utmost love and conviction, “well done, good and faithful servant”. Free at last he finally was. 

They took his life, but they could never take what he stood for, because what he stood for cannot die. That is the nature of love; it cannot die. That’s why the legacy of Martin Luther King lives on today as powerfully as ever.