The Big Topics at Midnight book event that was held January 13 in Oakland was to be focused around the two big anniversaries of that month—the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., fifty years after he proclaimed, “I Have a Dream,” and the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Then death crashed in. Twelve hours before the book reading, in the dark of night, a phone call came to Lillie Allen that her twenty-nine-year-old grandson, John Kelley, Jr., had been hit by a car and killed. Just five months after the death of his father.
Wails from grandmothers and mothers, sisters and brothers, friends and cousins reverberated. And the silencing of a life lost left behind both a heavy weight and a deep hollowness.
Dreams made and dreams shattered. The future remains unknown.
I do believe in the power and grace of what can grow out of ashes. But now the ashes are before me. I am left with King’s death, John, Jr.’s death and the recent deaths of many around the country and world.
My time pondering Dr. King in early January took me back to my favorite, and most demanding, speech of his—Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. His words, first heard by me decades after he spoke, woke me up to connections I hadn’t seen before.
That would have been enough. But then I found out that he was killed exactly a year after this speech. The King family and attorney tried for years to get all of the evidence surrounding his death heard in court, but to no avail. The state clung to the confession and ignored the recanting of James Earl Ray.
In December 1999, the evidence surrounding the King assignation was finally brought to trial in Memphis, TN. Not in a criminal trial—that permission was never granted—but in a civil suit. All of the evidence was presented, recorded and heard in a courtroom for the first time. The jury rendered a unanimous verdict: King’s death was the result of a conspiracy involving local, state and regional US Governmental agencies, the Mafia and Lloyd Jowers.
The silence around the evidence and that decision was deafening. Few heard the trial had even happened.
I understand why. The verdict was too horrifying to contemplate.
I didn’t want to do a whole series on this speech of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and especially not to end up here. But his speech showed up in me in January. The words flowed. I was obedient. It is, indeed, a time to wake up and break silence.
Sixth and final blog in a series honoring *Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Beyond Vietnam–A Time to Break Silence, Delivered April 4, 1967, Riverside Church, New York City.