By John W. Whitehead
"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
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
authoritythe "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 believelet
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
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 airplanewhich 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 sermonthe
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.