In Martin Luther King’s Final Speech, Shades of Giffords’ Shooting
Martin Luther King, Jr. would have celebrated his eighty-second birthday this Saturday. His last speech, delivered the day before his April 1968 assassination, lives on, remaining eerily relevant to Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting, and America’s long struggle as whole.
Delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, King’s final address, officially entitled “I See The Promised Land,” though sometimes called “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop,” concerned that city’s ongoing sanitation strike, yet, like so many of the orator’s offerings, encompassed the entire cultural landscape, even the future’s.
King opens his speech by imagining which time period in which he would live, if given the choice. Sure, Rome and Greece are alluring, as is the Renaissance, and, yes, progressive American presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt get honorable mention. The time period upon which he settles, though, is the second half of the twentieth century, his present time, a time in which, he readily admits, “the world is all messed up.”
“The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around… ” King confessed before explaining his rationale. “[But] I’m happy to live in this period [because] we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history… Survival demands that we grapple with them.”
The late activist could very well be a contemporary pundit speaking about last weekend’s rampage in Arizona.
Our nation’s political narrative shifted when Jared Loughner shot Rep. Giffords and 19 other people in Arizona last weekend, a horrific shock that claimed six lives, including a 9-year old girl and federal judge John M. Roll.
Americans of all political stripes were shaken to their core, with people like President Obama and Sarah Palin, whose target list has been implicated in the tragedy, offering their respective condolences, and House Speaker John Boehner wisely moving back the contentious health care repeal vote, another potential factor in the attack, out of respect.
Though certainly unsettled by Loughner’s attempt on Giffords’ life, politicos from both sides of the aisle wasted no time pointing fingers. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik started the ball rolling, and said on Saturday, mere hours after the onslaught, “When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.”
He continued, “Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry,” referencing that state’s infamous and divisive immigration law.
Those on the right, meanwhile, insist they’re not to blame. Radio host Rush Limbaugh, for example, said, “In continuing this template and narrative that the Tea Party and Sarah Palin, that talk radio and Fox News, are inspiring violence, they forget that, in the process of so doing, they are attacking what is now a majority of America,” while Tea Party activists are trying to paint Loughner as a deranged, pot smoking liberal.
Determining 22-year-old Loughner’s potentially political motivations definitely tops the list of questions surrounding the crime scene, but it’s far more important that we all, regardless of party affiliation, focus on our shared American citizenship, rather than letting this horrific act beget more violence and tear us apart.
“Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace,” King said in that final speech. “But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.”
Though King was talking specifically about the civil rights struggle, the message reverberates today. Our cleaved nation currently finds itself in a zero-sum situation: all political camps must embrace nonviolent tactics — King suggests boycotts and sit-ins — or face mutual, guaranteed destruction.
“We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody,” instructed King in Memphis. “We’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity.”
At the end of his speech, Dr. King, whose house was bombed in 1956 and who was stabbed two years later, offered a prophetic vision of his impending death.
“It really doesn’t matter what happens now,” he said. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop… 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.”
Giffords also seemed to have forecasted her own brush with death, and last March warned against the implications of Palin’s aforementioned target list. Said the Congresswoman, “The thing is, the way that she has it depicted — the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district — when people do that, they’ve got to realize that there’s consequences for that action.”
And last Friday, one day prior to Loughner’s assassination attempt, Giffords pleaded for Americans to rely on moderation, not vitriolic rhetoric. “I would love to talk about what we can do to promote centrism and moderation,” she wrote in an email to supporters. “We need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down.” She also predicted bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill.
Let King’s death and Giffords’ shooting not be in vain. We should heed their words, those recent and those past, to bring this nation closer to reconciliation, instead of disintegration. Now’s the time, for, as King said in “Promised Land,” “Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.” It is darkest before dawn, they say. King agreed, and we should, too.