Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. Today is Wednesday, April 4th. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: And I’m Kent Covington. 50 years ago today, an assassin shot and killed Baptist preacher and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. He was just 39 years old. 

REICHARD: WORLD Radio’s Paul Butler is here now to review King’s life and legacy.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: At 6:01 p.m, April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Junior is standing outside his 2nd story motel room. James Earl Ray—a white escaped convict—shoots King Jr. from across the street with a high-power hunting rifle.

NEWSCAST: Good evening, Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of non-violence and the Civil Rights Movement has been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee.

As the news spreads, President Lyndon B. Johnson, urges peace:

LYNDON B JOHNSON: I know that every American of goodwill, joins me in mourning the death of this outstanding leader and in praying for peace and understanding throughout this land.

Martin Luther King Jr. was the second of three children born to an Atlanta Baptist minister in 1929. King credited his father with instilling in him a strong sense of justice and the will to struggle against segregation and discrimination.

King was a strong student and gifted communicator—entering Morehouse College at age 15. After seminary, he took his first full-time pastorate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. That’s where he later organized the Bus Boycott in 1955.

KING: For a number of years, the negro passengers on the city bus lines of Montgomery have been humiliated, intimidated, and face threats on this busline…

Two years later, King and other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to leverage the influence of black churches. The SCLC leads nonviolent protests against discriminatory Jim Crow laws, sponsoring marches in cities like Albany, Birmingham, and Selma:

KING: We are getting ready to move out to to a kind of escalated non-violent struggle, all over this country, including the District of Columbia…

In 1963 King helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was there he delivered his 17-minute “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

MLK: It came as a joyous daybreak, to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination, one hundred years later…

More than 250,000 people attended the march, and soon after, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The bill outlawed racial segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination—but the struggle continued.

King laced his speeches with Scripture quotations and biblical metaphors—even in secular contexts. In 1967, he spoke of transforming faith during a speech at Stanford University.

MLK: With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood…that will be the day when the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.

On April 3rd, 1968, King planned to speak at a rally for striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. A bomb threat delayed his plane by two hours.

During his speech that evening, he recalled a previous attempt on his life, when a mentally ill black woman stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener. One reporter wrote that the blade was so close to his heart, “if he’d sneezed, King would have died.”

MLK: If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been here in 1963. Black people of Birmingham, Alabama aroused the conscience of this nation and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill. I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.

King concluded his speech admitting the future was uncertain, but the Promised Land lay just over the next mountain.

MLK: We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. 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 so 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!!

The next day, Martin Luther King Jr. was dead. And 5 days later, during the funeral in Atlanta, his widow played an excerpt from a sermon King had preached a few months earlier.

KING: If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy tell him not to talk too long. I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. If I can do my duty as a Christian or if I can bring salvation to a world once wrought. If I can spread the message as the Master taught, then my living will not be in vain. 


Church historian and professor Martin Marty believes King’s prophetic legacy is best understood through his commitment to justice, rooted in Scripture.

MARTY: One great scholar said there are two ways you can change the world in the light of a text. You can say: “It is written, but I say unto you…” or you can say: “It is written and I insist.” And that was King’s gift. He always in one pocket, had the nation’s sacred documents: the Constitution and the declaration…in the other he’d have the prophets, John the Baptist, and Jesus…and he’d say: “80 percent of you claim to follow this, so I insist.” So there was that galvanizing moment, and they quickened the white conscience pretty quickly.


Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Paul Butler.

(AP File Photo) In this 1960 file photo, Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Atlanta.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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