For those of us who were around on April 4, 1968, it is one of our saddest memories.
New Yorkers were stunned when they heard that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot in the face on a second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Throughout America there was deep shock.
As the news spread that the civil rights leader had been killed riots erupted in more than 125 cities. But New York remained relatively calm. Mayor John Lindsay has been credited with keeping the city from exploding.
The circumstances of King’s assassination were deeply moving. The preacher had gone to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. King, like many African-American ministers, identified with the stories of the Old Testament.
Thus, when he spoke to an audience in Memphis the night before he died, he recalled the experience of Moses, who, after leading the Israelites on a 40-year trek through the desert to the Promised Land, had asked God to let him see the land before he died. He went to a mountaintop to look at the fertile valley below. And God said:
“This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, I will give it to your offspring. I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there.” And Moses died.
On an earlier occasion, in 1958, King was stabbed by a deranged woman in a Harlem store.
I spoke to him at Harlem Hospital and he vowed that he had no anger for that woman. He told me: "She needs help."
Ten years later, at a time when violence had broken out around America over civil rights, King seemed to have a premonition of his own death. The weather was bad. The crowd was relatively small. King told the audience. “ Like anybody, I’d like to have 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 us 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!”
The next evening, as he prepared to go out to dinner with some friends, King was shot by James Earl Ray. The rifle bullet penetrated his neck. He died one hour later. As he lay dying, he told Ben Branch, a musician scheduled to play at a rally where King was to speak: “Ben, make sure you play “Take my hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
In New York, Mayor John Lindsay walked the streets, his jacket slung over his shoulder. He walked through the black neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn. He had a calming influence.
Doug Muzzio, a professor at Baruch College, told me: “Lindsay’s personal courage was magnificent. Detroit burned. Newark burned. It may be difficult for some who were born recently to realize the level of violence throughout the nation then. The world seemed to be falling apart. Two months later, Kennedy would be dead.”
“But,” said Muzzio, “I have this picture of Lindsay walking through the neighborhood wearing a white shirt. In that moment he was superb. Although his skills were lacking in many areas, at that critical time he was what the city needed.”
And Martin Luther King Jr. was what the country needed. With his doctrine of non-violence, he gave the nation moral leadership. Although he died violently for his non-violence creed, his name will live on in history as a man of God who showed us the way.