Reflecting on King’s legacy 50 years after his death

DOVER ­— John Moore was just 6 years old.

From the steps of his home in North Philadelphia, he was looking out on a quiet street on a nice spring day wondering where everyone was.

“Normally the streets would just be bustling with people, kids running all over the place and everything,” he remembers. “It was dead silent.”

Confused, he went to his mother.

“She was trying to explain to me what happened, that a great man in this country had gotten killed, that we need to pray and pray for peace because there are a lot of people that will be angry.”

On April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee.

Mr. Moore, a Dover minister who is well known in the region for his portrayals of Dr. King and his uncanny ability to recite his speeches, said it is important that we take time to reflect on the 50th anniversary.

On Saturday, Mr. Moore will offer an hour-long presentation at the Delaware Public Archives, telling the story of Dr. King’s life from his youth in Georgia to his death in Memphis. Mr. Moore will share passages from his speeches, including his final one, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

The free program starts at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.

“People let history fade,” said Mr. Moore. “That’s why this is so important to me. As much as we celebrate his birthday, as much as we celebrate the March on Washington and his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, we have to reflect back on that day that his life was taken.”

It’s all the more important, he said, because of the gun violence the nation is now discussing and how young students are protesting. “The timing,” he said, “is unbelievable.”

And it’s not just the gun violence. Americans, he said, are still dealing with poverty and issues such as opioid addiction are impacting everyone.

Added Mr. Moore, “King said, ‘Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.’”

“You know, 50 years later after this man died, we’re still fighting for some of the same things the American dream should have for all people,” said Mr. Moore. “It just tells us that we have to remain vigilant, stay off the sidelines and get involved. Go to your schools and go to your government leaders, speak up, talk to your legislators.”

John Moore, right, stands at the podium he will use Wednesday in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, to recite the words of Martin Luther King Jr. In the 1960s, Dr. King used the same podium. (Submitted photos)

***

In the final days of his life, Dr. King was exhausted, frustrated and depressed, said Mr. Moore.

Activists had taken a turn toward confrontation, going against the non-violent approach that Dr. King had preached and

practiced. His stance against the Vietnam War brought new criticism against him, and he struggled to gain momentum in a new campaign against poverty. “People started to distance from him,” said Mr. Moore.

Before Dr. King left Atlanta for Memphis, his plane was delayed because of a bomb threat. He was also growing weary from other threats on his life.

His visit to Memphis followed incidents of violence. He felt he had to be there for a peaceful march in support of striking sanitation workers.

The night before his death, he begged out of a call for him to be at the Mason Temple Church where hundreds of supporters had gathered and demanded to see him. He relented, despite not feeling well and having to go out in a storm, and delivered an address that talked about the strike, economic actions, boycotts, peaceful protests and the First Amendment.

The latter was in response to an injunction that jeopardized a peaceful march that had been planned in the city.

“Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly,” said Dr. King. “Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.”

The speech, however, may be remembered best for its prophetic, fatalistic tone.

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now,” Dr. King said in his final speech in Memphis. “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 don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live 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 me 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. 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 words in the speech bring chills up your spine, said Mr. Moore.

“When he stood up there that night, he said, ‘It doesn’t matter now,’” said Mr. Moore. “He knew he was about to die.”

***

Dr. King was standing on a motel balcony in Memphis when he was struck by a bullet from the rifle of James Earl Ray, a fugitive who had been on the run from a Missouri prison.

The prophetic words of Dr. King will also be remembered in his last bit of banter with friends, He called out to a musician, Ben Branch, and requested that he play his favorite song later that night, The song: “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,”

Seconds later, he was shot. Dr, King was pronounced dead about an hour later.

In the days that followed, riots broke out across the country. Wilmington was among those places and the 1968 riots led Delaware to have the longest National Guard presence in the nation.

***

In addition to the Delaware Public Archives presentation, Mr. Moore will discuss the life of Dr. King during presentations Wednesday for a law class at Widener University and later Wednesday night at Willowdale Chapel in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

The podium he will use at the Kennett Square Church is the same one used in 1967 by Dr. King at a school in the same community.

Mr. Moore, a candidate in the upcoming Caesar Rodney School District board of education election, retired from the United States Air Force in 2005 after 20 years.

He currently serves as the vice president, Resource Development and Strategic Partnerships for the United Way of Delaware.

He is also the executive director for the Delaware Youth Leadership Academy. From January 2000 to December 2017, Moore served as the youth pastor for Calvary Baptist Church in Dover. Dr. Moore is president and CEO of Total Increase Ministries.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks on Jan. 1, 1960 in Washington D.C. King was tragically assassinated on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. Here’s a look at King and the commemoration of his efforts as the 50th anniversary of his assassination approaches. (Keystone Pictures USA/Zuma Press/TNS)

Reach Executive Editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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