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Excerpt: 'April 4, 1968'

1968 Book Cover

You cannot hear the name Martin Luther King, Jr. and not think of death. You might hear the words "I have a dream," but they will doubtlessly only serve to underscore an image of a simple motel balcony, a large man made small, a pool of blood. For as famous as he may have been in life, it is – and was – death that ultimately defined him. Born into a culture whose main solace was Christianity's Promised Land awaiting them after the suffering of this world, King took on the power of his race's presumed destiny and found in himself the defiance necessary to spark change. He ate, drank, and slept death. He danced with it, he preached it, he feared it, and he stared it down. He looked for ways to lay it aside, this burden of his own mortality, but ultimately knew that his unwavering insistence on a non-violent end to the mistreatment of his people could only end violently....

From the time he began to speak out, King was haunted by death – mugged by the promise of destruction for seeking an end to black indignity and the beginning of equality with whites. After a few years spent up North acquiring his education, King chose to return to where he would be needed most in the coming years—the white-hot center of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement and Montgomery, Alabama. At twenty-six he took on the responsibilities of a Baptist pulpit, joining forces with the local NAACP, and dug in for the year-long bus boycott created to end the Jim Crow law of racial segregation in public transportation. During this conflict his house was bombed—his wife Coretta and their ten-week-old daughter Yolanda were home, but escaped injury. It was the first time King would be tested with violence aimed at his life, but far from the last. Later in the boycott a shotgun blast was fired into King's home. King did not capitulate, but instead he emerged from the ashes of these attempts as the true Phoenix of the newly minted movement. Once again, his mortality challenged, he accepted his calling without hesitation.

A couple of years after the boycott ended, King was in Harlem at Blumstein's department store signing Stride Toward Freedom, his account of the movement's success. From out of nowhere, a clearly disturbed black woman, Izola Ware Curry, sunk a letter opener into his chest after asking if he was Martin Luther King. Though considered an act of instability, this attack was still colored by Curry's irrational hatred of what King and the NAACP were trying to do, and by her own fear of being killed because of his constant stirring of the pot. Even so, it was one of the rare instances of black public hate directed at King, the kind that would later be famously associated with his colleague and competitor Malcolm X.

As he took flight to snip the bullying wings of Jim Crow, King ruffled the feathers of white racists who grew more determined to bring him down. There was striking physical intimidation of King. In a show of naked aggression, two white cops attempted to block his entry into a Montgomery courtroom for the trial of a man who had attacked his comrade Ralph Abernathy. Despite a warning from the cops, King poked his head inside the courtroom looking for his lawyer to help him get inside. His actions ignited their rage. The policemen twisted his arm behind his back and manhandled him into jail. King said the cops "tried to break my arm; they grabbed my collar and tried to choke me, and when they got me to the cell, they kicked me in." A photographer happened by to capture the scene. The shot of King – dressed in a natty tan suit, stylish gold wristwatch and a trendy snap-brim fedora – wincing as he is banished to confinement is an iconic civil rights image.

As King addressed the 1962 convention of his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a two hundred pound young white man rushed the stage and landed a brutal blow on his left cheek. The crowd reacted in hushed disbelief. The diminutive King never flinched or retreated, even as the young brute delivered several more blows, first to the side of his face as he stood behind King, and then two blows to his back. King gently spoke to his attacker as he continued to pummel his body. He knocked King backward as the orator dropped his hands – legendary activist Septima Clark, in attendance that day, said King let down his hands "like a newborn baby" – and faced his assailant head on.

Finally, SCLC staff leader Wyatt Tee Walker and others intervened as King pleaded, "Don't touch him! Don't touch him. We have to pray for him." King quietly assured the young man he wouldn't be harmed. The leader and his aides retreated to a private office to talk with his assailant, who was, King told the audience when he returned, a member of the American Nazi Party. As King held an ice-filled handkerchief to his jaw, he informed the crowd he wouldn't press charges. Most in attendance were amazed at King's calm as violence flashed.

Obviously nonviolence was more than a method and a creed; it answered assault with acts of steadfast courage.

Excerpted from Michael Eric Dyson's April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America published by Basic Civitas, April 2008. All rights reserved.

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Michael Eric Dyson