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Chapter 21: Death of Illusions

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Book cover - The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson

Man's inhumanity to man is not only perpetrated by the vitriolic actions of those who are bad. It is also perpetrated by the vitiating inaction of those who are good.

  • September 15, 1963 – Dynamite blast kills four young black girls in Sunday school at Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
  • September 19, 1963 King and other civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy
  • September 22, 1963 Delivers eulogy for the four children
  • November 22, 1963 Assassination of President Kennedy; Lyndon B. Johnson becomes president

It would have been pleasant to relate that Birmingham settled down after the storm, and moved constructively to justify the hopes of the many who wished it well. It would have been pleasant, but it would not be true. After partial and grudging compliance with some of the settlement terms, the twentieth-century night riders had yet another bloodthirsty turn on the stage. On one horror-filled September morning they blasted the lives from four innocent girls, at Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. Police killed another child in the streets, and hate-filled white youths climaxed the day with the wanton murder of a Negro boy harmlessly riding his bicycle.

I shall never forget the grief and bitterness I felt on that terrible September morning. I think of how a woman cried out crunching through broken glass, "My God, we're not even safe in church!" I think of how that explosion blew the face of Jesus Christ from a stained glass window. I can remember thinking, was it all worth it? Was there any hope?

In Birmingham, which we had believed to be a city redeemed, a crucifixion had taken place. The children were the victims of a brutality which echoed around the world. Where was God in the midst of falling bombs?

In every battle for freedom there are martyrs whose lives are forfeited and whose sacrifice endorses the promise of liberty. The girls died as a result of the Holy Crusade of black men to be free. They were not civil rights leaders, as was Medgar Evers. They were not crusaders of justice, as was William Moore—a Baltimore postman who was gunned down as he sought to deliver the message of democracy to the citadel of injustice. They were youngsters—a tiny bit removed from baby food—and babies, we are told, are the latest news from heaven.

So, children are a glorious promise, and no one could tell what those children could have become—another Mary Bethune or Mahalia Jackson. But, they became the most glorious that they could have become. They became symbols of our crusade. They gave their lives to insure our liberty. They did not do this deliberately. They did it because something strange, something incomprehensible to man is reenacted in God's will, and they are home today with God.

So they did not die in vain

This afternoon we gather in the quiet of this sanctuary to pay our last tribute of respect to these beautiful children of God. They entered the stage of history just a few years ago, and in the brief years that they were privileged to act on this mortal stage, they played their parts exceedingly well. Now the curtain falls; they move through the exit; the drama of their earthly life comes to a close. They are now committed back to that eternity from which they came.

These children—unoffending, innocent, and beautiful—were the victims of one of the most vicious, heinous crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.

Yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. So they have something to say to us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constitutents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of Southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing Northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who passively accepts the evil system of segregation and stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, and the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly to make the American dream a reality.

So they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. The holy Scripture says, "A little child shall lead them." The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low roar of man's inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood. These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilt blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed, this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.

So in spite of the darkness of this hour we must not despair. We must not become bitter; nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personality.

May I now say a word to you, the members of the bereaved families. It is almost impossible to say anything that can console you at this difficult hour and remove the deep clouds of disappointment which are floating in your mental skies. But I hope you can find a little consolation from the universality of this experience. Death comes to every individual. There is an amazing democracy about death. It is not an aristocracy for some of the people, but a democracy for all of the people. Kings die and beggars die; rich men die and poor men die; old people die and young people die; death comes to the innocent and it comes to the guilty. Death is the irreducible common denominator of all men.

I hope you can find some consolation from Christianity's affirmation that death is not the end. Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal. Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be your sustaining power during these trying days.


Accomplices to murder

As did most citizens of the United States, I looked to the White House for solace in this moment of crisis. The White House could never restore the lives of these four unoffending children. But, in my mind and in my heart and in my soul, there was a dream and a hope that out of this unbelievable horror would come lasting good. When the President summoned me and leaders of the Birmingham movement to confer with him, this dream became more poignant and this hope more real.

We come to you today because we feel that the Birmingham situation is so serious that it threatens not only the life and stability of Birmingham and Alabama but our whole nation. The destiny of our nation is involved. We feel that Birmingham has reached a state of civil disorder. There are many things that would justify our coming to this conclusion.

The real problem that we face is this: the Negro community is about to reach a breaking point and a great deal of frustration is there and confusion. And there is a feeling of being alone and not being protected. If you walk the streets, you are not safe; if you stay at home, you are not safe; if you are in church, you are not safe. So that the Negro feels that everywhere he goes that if he remains stationary, he is in danger of some physical problem.

Now this presents a real problem for those of us who find ourselves in leadership positions, because we are preaching the philosophy and method of nonviolence. We have been consistent in standing up for nonviolence. But more and more we are faced with the problem of our people saying, "What's the use?" And we find it a little more difficult to get over nonviolence. And 1 am convinced that if something isn't done to give the Negro a new sense of hope and a sense of protection, there is a danger we will face the worse race riot we have ever seen in this country.

When I left the White House, I left with an almost audacious faith that, finally, something positive, something definitive, something real would be done by the leadership of this nation to redeem the community in which horror had come to make its home. I exercised what I believed to be a tremendous restraint. In doing so, I acted contrary to the wishes of those who had marched with me in the dangerous campaigns for freedom. I was certain that my silence and restraint were misunderstood by many who were loyal enough not to express their doubts. I did this because I was naive enough to believe that the proof of good faith would emerge.

It became obvious that this was a mistake. It began to become obvious when I realized that the mayor who had wept on television had not even had the common decency to come or to send an emissary to the funerals of these murdered innocents. I looked back and noted that the administration itself endorsed the pattern of segregation by having separate-and I wonder if they were equal-meetings with the white and colored leadership. The presidential envoys seemed to believe that, by meeting with white people at one hour and Negroes at another, they could bring about a redemptive understanding. This, we knew, they could not do. This, surely, the President must have understood, was impossible.

Christmas Letter to the Family of Denise McNair

Dear Mr. and Mrs. McNair:

Here in the midst of the Christmas season my thoughts have turned to you. This has been a difficult year for you. The coming Christmas, when the family bonds are normally more closely knit, makes the loss you have sustained even more painful. Yet, with the sad memories there are the memories of the good days when Denise was with you and your family. 

As you know, many of us are giving up our Christmas as a memorial for the great sacrifices made this year in the Freedom Struggle. I know there is nothing that can compensate for the vacant place in your family circle, but we did want to share a part of our sacrifice this year with you. Perhaps there is some small thing dear to your heart in which this gift can play a part.

We knew, when we went into Birmingham, that this was the test, the acid test of whether the Negro Revolution would succeed. If the forces of reaction which were seeking to nullify and cancel out all of the gains made in Birmingham were allowed to triumph, the day was lost in this battle for freedom. We were faced with an extreme situation, and our remedies had to be extreme.

I fear that, from the White House down to the crocodile-weeping city administration of Birmingham, the intent and the intensity of the Negro has been misunderstood. So, 1 must serve notice on this nation, 1 must serve notice on the White House. 1 must serve notice on the city administration of Birmingham. I must serve notice on the conscience of the American people. On August 28, we had marched on our capital. It was a peaceful march; it was a quiet march; it was a tranquil march. And I am afraid that some people, from the White House down, misunderstood the peace and the quiet and the tranquility of that march.

They must have believed that it meant that the Revolution was all over, that its fires were quenched, that its marvelous militancy had died. They could have made no greater error. Our passion to be free; our determination to walk with dignity and justice have never abated. We are more determined than ever before that nonviolence is the way. Let them bring on their bombs. Let them sabotage us with the evil of cooperation with segregation. We intend to be free.

Assassinated by a morally inclement climate

Negroes tragically know political assassination well. In the life of Negro civil rights leaders, the whine of the bullet from ambush, the roar of the bomb have all too often broken the night's silence. They have replaced lynching as a political weapon. More than a decade ago, sudden death came to Mr. and Mrs. Harry T. Moore, NAACP leaders in Florida. The Reverend George Lee of Belzoni, Mississippi, was shot to death on the steps of a rural courthouse. The bombings multiplied. Nineteen sixty-three was a year of assassinations. Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi; William Moore in Alabama; six Negro children in Birmingham—and who could doubt that these too were political assassinations?

The unforgivable default of our society has been its failure to apprehend the assassins. It is a harsh judgment, but undeniably true, that the cause of the indifference was the identity of the victims. Nearly all were Negroes. And so the plague spread until it claimed the most eminent American, a warmly loved and respected President. The words of Jesus, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" were more than a figurative expression; they were a literal prophecy.

Men everywhere were stunned into sober confusion at the news of the assassination of President Jack Kennedy. We watched the thirty-fifth President of our nation go down like a great cedar. The personal loss was deep and crushing; the loss to the world was overpowering. It is still difficult to believe that one so saturated with vim, vitality, and vigor is no longer in our midst.

President Kennedy was a strongly contrasted personality. There were in fact two John Kennedys. One presided in the first two years under pressure of the uncertainty caused by his razor-thin margin of victory. He vacillated, trying to sense the direction his leadership could travel while retaining and building support for his administration. However, in 1963, a new Kennedy had emerged. He had found that public opinion was not in a rigid mold. American political thought was not committed to conservatism, nor radicalism, nor moderation. It was above all fluid. As such it contained trends rather than hard lines, and affirmative leadership could guide it into constructive channels.

President Kennedy was not given to sentimental expressions of feeling. He had, however, a deep grasp of the dynamics of and the necessity for social change. His work for international amity was a bold effort on a world scale. His last speech on race relations was the most earnest, human, and profound appeal for understanding and justice that any President has uttered since the first days of the republic. Uniting his flair for leadership with a program of social progress, he was at his death undergoing a transformation from a hesitant leader with unsure goals to a strong figure with deeply appealing objectives.

The epitaph of John Kennedy reveals that he was a leader unafraid of change. He came to the presidency in one of the most turbulent and cataclysmic periods of human history, a time when the problems of the world were gigantic in intent and chaotic in detail. On the international scene there was the ominous threat of mankind being plunged into the abyss of nuclear annihilation. On the domestic scene the nation was reaping the harvest of its terrible injustice toward the Negro. John Kennedy met these problems with a depth of concern, a breath of intelligence, and a keen sense of history. He had the courage to be a friend of civil rights and a stalwart advocate of peace. The unmistakable cause of the sincere grief expressed by so many millions was more than simple emotion. It revealed that President Kennedy had become a symbol of people's yearnings for justice, economic well-being, and peace.

Our nation should do a great deal of soul-searching as a result of President Kennedy's assassination. The shot that came from the fifth-story building cannot be easily dismissed as the isolated act of a madman. Honesty impels us to look beyond the demented mind that executed this dastardly act. While the question "Who killed President Kennedy?" is important, the question "What killed him?" is more important.

Our late President was assassinated by a morally inclement climate. It is a climate filled with heavy torrents of false accusation, jostling winds of hatred, and raging storms of violence.

It is a climate where men cannot disagree without being disagreeable, and where they express dissent through violence and murder. It is the same climate that murdered Medgar Evers in Mississippi and six innocent Negro children in Birmingham, Alabama.

So in a sense we are all participants in that horrible act that tarnished the image of our nation. By our silence, by our willingness to compromise principle, by our constant attempt to cure the cancer of racial injustice with the vaseline of gradualism, by our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.

So President Kennedy has something important to say to each of us in his death. He has something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents the stale bread of racism and the spoiled meat of hatred. He has something to say to every clergyman who observed racial evils and remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows. He has something to say to the devotees of the extreme right who poured out venomous words against the Supreme Court and the United Nations, and branded everyone a communist with whom they disagree. He has something to say to a misguided philosophy of communism that would teach man that the end justifies the means, and that violence and the denial of basic freedom are justifiable methods to achieve the goal of a classless society.

He says to all of us that this virus of hate that has seeped into the veins of our nation, if unchecked, will lead inevitably to our moral and spiritual doom.

Thus the epitaph of John Kennedy's life illuminates profound truths that challenge us to set aside our grief of a season and move forward with more determination to rid our nation of the vestiges of racial segregation and discrimination.

The assassination of President Kennedy killed not only a man but a complex of illusions. It demolished the myth that hate and violence can be confined in an airtight chamber to be employed against but a few. Suddenly the truth was revealed that hate is a contagion; that it grows and spreads as a disease; that no society is so healthy that it can automatically maintain its immunity. If a smallpox epidemic had been raging in the South, President Kennedy would have been urged to avoid the area. There was a plague afflicting the South, but its perils were not perceived.

We were all involved in the death of John Kennedy. We tolerated hate; we tolerated the sick simulation of violence in all walks of life; and we tolerated the differential application of law, which said that a man's life was sacred only if we agreed with his views. This may explain the cascading grief that flooded the country in late November. We mourned a man who had become the pride of the nation, but we grieved as well for ourselves because we knew we were sick.

NEXT: Chapter 22: St. Augustine