By Miriam Raftery
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
-- Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Editor’s Note: This essay was written several years ago following my trip to Memphis on the anniversary of King's death, but its message remains as timely now as it was then.
MEMPHIS – The shadow of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. looms large in Memphis, where Martin Luther King was assassinated thirty years ago. But his message transcends time and place, as I was poignantly reminded last year during a visit to the place where King drew his final breath.
“You are the press. You are the key to world peace,” Rev. Jesse Jackson told a crowd of journalists and citizen bloggers at the National Media Reform Conference in Memphis which I attended last January. Jackson and other speakers urged good people everywhere to “be the media” and tell the stories of real people whose voices are too often ignored by the mainstream press.
Jackson was with King when a bullet forever silenced the famed civil rights leader. Now, he recalled King’s impassioned plea for journalists everywhere to “keep hope alive” through honest reporting about war, economic justice and other key issues. Truth would be revealed, we were reminded, as long as “in the pitch of dark, someone lit one light.”
Those words echoed in my mind on the eve of Dr. King’s assassination, when I visited the Civil Rights Museum. Exhibit after exhibit revealed a long history of struggle for racial equality in America, a history marred by violence and brutality. Today, with racial violence on the rise across America, including right here in East County, messages from the past provided an eerie sense of déjà vu.
Stepping outside into the darkness when the museum closed, I saw a glimmer of tears in my roommate’s eyes, reflected beneath a streetlight. “It all seems so hopeless,” she bemoaned. “We have so far to go.”
Then from the distance, a voice carried in the night. We saw a man preaching below the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where King was slain on January 15, 1968. A group of men stood around the preacher in a silent, somber vigil, clutching umbrellas in the falling rain.
The speaker turned to a man beside him and lit a candle. More candles appeared, as if by magic. One man passed the flame to another, then another, until a warm circle of light pierced the darkness.
“Come, join hands if you wish,” the speaker invited all present. We stepped forward and held hands with strangers in the dark, as the unknown preacher led us in a stirring chorus of We Shall Overcome. One could almost hear the voices of past civil rights marchers and their ancestors rooted in slavery as the final notes echoed in the night.
The last strains faded. The group disbanded, each taking a candle and vanishing into the darkness.
“Do you know what just happened here?” a fellow museum patron asked me.
“Wasn’t it a commemoration to honor Dr. King?” I asked.
He shook his head. “That man speaking was Rev. Washington, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” he said, naming the organization founded by Rev. King. “The man beside him was from Nation of Islam.”
“The group founded by Malcolm X?”
He nodded. “They just brokered a truce between the Bloods and the Cripps.”
A shiver rippled down my spine. “Then those other men…?”
“Gang members. They all spent time in prison.” The men had pledged to stop violence and work together to fight for jobs for their members here in Memphis, he explained.
The spirit of Dr. King was as tangible as the night wind whistling in my ears. In the darkness where King’s life ended, a new light had been kindled. By sharing this story with you, I’ve kept that flame alive. I’ve also witnessed the abiding power of faith to triumph over hate.
In these divisive times torn asunder by war and poverty, King’s legacy of nonviolence lives on--providing hope and inspiration to a new generation.