Thankfully, he didn’t sneeze.
Had he done so – or moved in any way – his life might have ended in 1958 and America would not be the nation it is today. Nor the nation it still promises to be, tomorrow.
He was at a store on 125th Street in New York City when a deranged woman stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener. Had he moved even a little before emergency surgery, he might have died that day.
As it was, his life was cut short 10 years later when he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., 50 years ago. The man who declared “I have a dream” in his 1963 speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial was dead at 39. But those extra 10 years changed millions of lives and, along with them, a country.
It is appropriate today to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and what he stood for. It is appropriate during the current times when young people are standing up to say “Black Lives Matter” and trying to build a movement around that truth. It is appropriate when, sadly, there are still signs of inequality – in income and educational outcomes – to stop and remember the contributions of a man whose words continue to resonate five decades after his death.
King was, and remains, the giant in the American civil rights movement. His dedication conferred upon blacks who helped build this nation – in slavery and under Jim Crow – rights that were written in the Constitution and emblazoned in the hearts and minds of Americans, yet were systematically denied to a group of people not because of the content of their character, but the color of their skin.
In an Atlanta-born minister, this group of American citizens found someone who could eloquently articulate their fears and frustrations. King led a movement not by violence but nonviolence. He organized or influenced marches, protests and sit-ins at restaurants that refused to serve people derisively called “coloreds” – as in the “No Coloreds” signs affixed to so many restaurants, diners and water fountains.
The brave women and men, among them sympathetic whites who chose to stand and march alongside their fellow humans, withstood attack dogs, fire hoses, arrests and beatings, much of it administered by American law enforcement and epitomized by Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. This revolution was televised.
Images of police turning dogs and fire hoses on children protesting segregation was too much for right-thinking citizens to bear. Change was coming, though it wouldn’t come before four little girls – Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair – died in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. This awful event drew national attention to the civil rights movement. King carried his message of nonviolence and equal rights across the country.
He spoke at Kleinhans Music Hall five months before his death. His final speech, delivered the day before his assassination, is now referred to as “The Mountaintop Speech.” In it, King spoke in support of striking sanitation workers, appealing to his followers to use their collective power by refusing to purchase products from companies not hiring black employees and to support black-owned banks and black-managed insurance companies.
The injustices that existed then, and which King saw, ran contrary to what was written in the Constitution. “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper,’ ” he intoned, reminding listeners that if he lived in China or even Russia, “or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there.”
We were supposed to be committed to it here.
During this seminal speech, King recalled being stabbed on Sept. 20, 1958, by Izola Ware Curry, a woman who was suffering from delusions and paranoia. She stabbed him with a seven-inch long steel letter opener with an ivory handle. It just missed his heart. Doctors indicated that had he even sneezed, he could have died, he said.
In that speech, he listed the civil rights movement’s accomplishments he would not have seen – and, in truth, might not have occurred – had he sneezed. Most of all, he was glad to have been around in 1963, “when black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.”
Or, to be around later that year in August "to try to tell America about a dream that I had had. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great movement there. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering. I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.”
With King’s death, the country was robbed of a man who stands among the greatest Americans. It was a grievous loss. But he bequeathed us a fortune. It remains ours to build upon or to squander.