The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion From the archive: Martin Luther King Jr.

The front page of The Washington Post, April 5, 1968 during the riots that followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
The front page of The Washington Post, April 5, 1968 during the riots that followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. (N/A/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

[Editor’s Note: This is the original editorial published by The Washington Post following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.]

To each generation of mankind is given one or two rare spirits, touched by some divinity, who see visions and dream dreams. Committed to something outside themselves and beyond the orbit of ordinary lives, they serve their fellow-men as the movers and leaders of social change. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of these, a man whose extraordinary gifts were committed to humanity. Perhaps his tragic death was the means requisite to make real the purpose of his life.

An apostle of nonviolence, Dr. King was, nevertheless, a militant activist. He thought of nonviolence not as mere abstention from strife but as a vital mode of action. “We need an alternative to riots and to timid supplication,” he once said. “Nonviolence is our most potent weapon.” There was something at once mystical and pragmatic about his conception of nonviolence. In that great and moving letter he wrote from the Birmingham jail, Dr. King said: “Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

He was a pacific man but an impatient one; and his impatience was the mark of his humanity. He burned with indignation at the indignities and humiliations and injustices that were the common lot of Negroes in the South and at the frustrations and inequalities and poverty that were their portion in the North. And he knew that “we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily ... We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

And he added to this a bitter, painful truth-a truth no less apposite today than when he uttered it five years ago: “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always: meant ‘never.’ “

Yet, somehow, impatience and indignation were married in this man to gentleness and compassion. Hate was altogether alien to him. The dream he dreamed embraced his white as well as his black brothers. For he recognized that “the Negro needs the white man to free him from his fears. The white man needs the Negro to free him from his guilt. A doctrine of black supremacy is as evil as a doctrine of white supremacy.”

His dream, so stirringly recited at the Lincoln Memorial at the time of the great March on Washington of 1963, was the oldest and noblest of man’s dreams-the dream of universal brotherhood among the children of God. “I refuse,” he said then, “to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life which surrounds him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.’’

So he has been struck down by the very bigotry he sought to exorcise-and before the dream could become a reality. If the dream embraced both white and black, the grief and bereavement are shared by them as well. lt is meet that there should be mourning in the land. The flags belong at half-staff for the loss of a great American. The schools ought to be closed on the day of his funeral in remembrance of one who so loved little children that he gave his life to set them free.

But the joining of hands in shared sorrow must be more than ceremonial, more than momentary. The only true tribute to Martin Luther King, lover of life and lover of mankind, is a renewed dedication to his dream. He belongs now to all of us. The rich legacy he leaves can be enjoyed only as it is shared by all men alike. The legacy lies in his faith that “unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”

“The only way we can really achieve freedom is to somehow conquer the fear of death. For if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.

Deep down in our non-violent creed is the conviction that there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they are worth dying for.

And if a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, and some great truth stands before the door of his life, some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right and that which is just, and he refuses to stand up because he wants to live a little longer and he is afraid his home will get bombed, or he is afraid that he will lose his job, or he is afraid that he will get shot … he may go on and live until he’s 80, and the cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.

Man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true. So we are going to stand up right here ... letting the world know we are determined to be free.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a 1965 speech.

What Martin Luther King Jr. would think of Black Lives Matter today

Why we need both a national apology and reparations to heal the wounds of racism

The four days in 1968 the reshaped D.C.