On our trip to Miami, my two college friends and I encountered a checkpoint on Interstate 65, just north of downtown Nashville, Tennessee. Three National Guardsmen and a jeep blocked the two inside lanes, forcing traffic into the outside lane. It was 10 p.m. on Thursday, April 4, 1968.
We inched ahead as the soldiers checked each car ahead of us before waving them on.
When it was our turn, I drove forward until the soldier in front of our car motioned for me to stop. He held his M-16 with his right hand near the trigger. The other two guardsmen carried their carbines in a more relaxed fashion, but were still ready for action.
One young soldier walked up to my window and motioned for me to roll it down.
The soldier bent down. “Where y’all from?” he asked.
“University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana,” I said.
“Where y’all heading?”
“Miami for spring break.”
The soldier eyed each of us. We had longish hair and wore jeans, but we looked like most college kids for that era.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
The soldier stood up and backed away so he could keep his dark eyes on everyone. “The head n––r was murdered in Memphis tonight.”
“Haven’t you heard the news? Martin Luther King was killed today in Memphis. We don’t want you Yankees coming down here and stirring things up for us.”
“Hey, we’re on our way to Florida. Do we need to find a different route?”
“No, you can continue your drive on Interstate 65, but Interstate 40 to Memphis is closed. Enjoy yourselves in Florida.”
The soldier waved to the other soldiers. We passed through the checkpoint and continued on our way to Florida.
The racial slur was bad, but even worse was my inability to recognize the historical significance of that moment in Nashville. Maybe it was the warm weather, beaches and beer awaiting us in Florida. Or maybe I was simply a shallow frat boy who couldn’t see the bigger picture playing out before me.
But whatever caused my blindness back then, it continued to mask my eyes for a few more decades. It was only recently that a question dropped into my mind: Was that the day the movement died?
“Don’t be like the Gentiles, for your Father knows exactly what you need before you ask Him.” (Matthew 6:8 NLT)
When the bus segregation issue erupted in Montgomery, Alabama, on Dec. 1, 1955, God had already set His man in place as the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
It didn’t seem to bother God that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was only 26 years old at the time, nor did it seem to bother Him that King had character flaws.
God knew He had His Elijah, the man He called to step onto the national stage and confront racism in America. Whatever self-doubts or hindrances King might face, God knew the Holy Spirit would help him overcome them.
From 1957 until his death in 1968, King spoke over 2,500 times, traveled more than 6 million miles, was arrested 29 times, stabbed and almost died once, accosted three more times, wrote five books, named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1963 and was chosen as a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1964.
Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, along with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the CIA, state governors, mayors and police chiefs tracked his every move. All feared Dr. King might exceed the boundaries they hoped he would stay within.
For 12 years, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. moved civil rights forward in America, hurdling over obstacles placed in his way. The last piece of legislation was enacted one week after his death: The Civil Rights Act of 1968, or the Fair Housing Act.
Was April 4, 1968, the day the movement died?
Thus far, no other man or woman has received the mantle God placed on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak as a prophet to America about racism. No Elisha has stepped forward with a double portion of King’s anointing to take on the strongholds still blocking sincere interactions between black and white Americans.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, but even more important, 2019 will be the 400th anniversary of Africans first arriving in America.
Like Israel, I believe God has refined African-Americans in an iron furnace of affliction during their four centuries of history in our nation. I also believe He has saved their tears in His bottle and mixed their prayers with incense on the golden altar before His throne. God plans on using these to fuel a mighty move of God in America.
So, I believe we may soon see a black river of prophets and preachers coming out of the inner cities of America. They may have scars from knife fights and gunshot wounds, but their hearts will be filled with a love deeper than anyone has ever witnessed in our nation before them. The last shall be first!
“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!” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 3, 1968)