GREENSBORO, N.C. -- When Americans today think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the places they most associate him with are his hometown of Atlanta and Memphis, where he was assassinated as he and his colleagues were leaving the Lorraine Motel to go to dinner on April 4, 1968.
What most people don’t realize is the role Greensboro could have played in that drama.
King was due to be in Greensboro on April 4, 1968 – a Thursday, that year – to speak on behalf of a man running for governor in North Carolina. King canceled his visit a day or so ahead of time to remain in Memphis to continue his work with the sanitation workers who were on strike there. Although King is mostly thought of today as a man who fought for racial justice, his work was every bit as much about alleviating poverty, something a truly dedicated minister would have to do, says Rev. Daran Mitchell.
“He understood that everything was linked - he didn't separate the spiritual from the social,” Mitchell said. “In many religious traditions, there is this bifurcation, this segmenting of life. But, for Dr. King and those who walked with him and those - his contemporaries, if you will - they understood the intersection and it was a dynamic intersection.”
Mitchell happens to be the pastor at the church King was scheduled to speak at on that day, Trinity AME Zion Church on Florida Street.
Rev. Nelson Johnson was a freshman at North Carolina A&T State University in 1968 and was assigned to lead a group that would, “Cheer King in from the airport.” That opportunity, of course, never came but Johnson was already a big believer in King’s philosophy of non-violence – something that took a bit of work after his time both in the US Air Force and in dealing with the racism that was so prevalent in the Jim Crow south.
“As I have grown, I have come to believe deeply in our potential to live beyond that part of ourselves and to live to the front lobe, where love resides,” said Johnson, about the way humans can overcome their instincts for violence that reside in other parts of our brains. “And I think that is truly revolutionary, truly transformative and Dr. King was there. He was there in an unshakeable way.”
King was so influential in his day that many wanted him to run for office. And although it may be hard to imagine today, King was also a very divisive figure during his lifetime.
“The way he put is that, ‘I don't conform to popular culture, I create popular culture.’ You can't do that to the degree the country needed it and be a politician,” Johnson said. “If he got elected, he would run into a major problem of having to downscale his prophetic mission that was primary with him. So he made it very clear that he had no intention of running for office.”
But he didn’t need to, to do the things he was aiming to do.
“He cast a long shadow. And that's why I think why his light will always live forever,” Mitchell said.
See more about how King was due in Greensboro the day he died in this edition of the Buckley Report.