During the early months of 1968 Dr. King was embarking on what would be his last initiative: The Poor People’s Campaign.
Unlike early initiatives that focused primarily on African Americans receiving the full measure of rights as American citizens, this part of the movement was centered around impoverished conditions among all Americans. It was this effort that brought King to Memphis, TN a final time on April 3, 1968. J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, despised Dr. King and had employed his full arsenal of tactics to discredit and cripple his leadership. Hoover leaked a story to the local media that when King would come to Memphis, he would have reserved a room at the Holiday Inn, which some would have considered to be too nice for a black man. Coretta Scott King wrote in her autobiography:
Martin, ever sensitive to criticism, checked into the black-owned and -operated Lorraine Motel (p. 159).
The next day on April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King was shot at 6:01 p.m. while standing on the motel’s second floor balcony. Nearly one hour later, he died at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
A few weeks earlier, on an otherwise normal March 12th day, Dr. King, the husband, left his Atlanta office and made a trip to a nearby florist. To the best of his ability, he picked out some very special flowers and had them delivered to his wife who was at their house. Again, we turn to Mrs. King’s own words for what happened next:
I eagerly awaited their arrival, and indeed, as he returned home to pick up his bag to go to the airport, the flowers arrived. They were beautiful red carnations, but when I touched them, I was surprised to discover that they were artificial. Martin had never given me artificial flowers before. It seemed unlike him. That night, I complimented him on their beauty, but asked whether the florist had picked artificial flowers by mistake. It was not a mistake at all. “I wanted to give you something that you could always keep,” he said. Those red carnations were the last flowers I ever received from Martin. Did he have a premonition of what was to come? I will never know for certain, but the flowers certainly suggested that he did. They were his prelude to good-bye (p. 155).
Black History Month can trace its roots back to 1926, when it was celebrated as ‘Negro History Week’. In 1976, it was expanded to be celebrated for the entire month of February, a month that holds the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Of course, the purpose of Black History Month is to remember and honor the contributions of African Americans to U.S. history.
Unfortunately, it seems, that this month has been reduced to something talked about briefly in schools. But after the corkboard murals, elementary school pictures colored, and the occasional homework assignments that focus on name, date, and event…there doesn’t seem to be much celebration or recognition. With the passing of time, the emphasis has faded. If Black History Month was once a well-lit neon sign, some of the letters are now burned out while others are blinking intermittently.
The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way. This can be a month of discovery, a month to meet new people in history and learn their stories. Think of this month like the last flowers Dr. King gave his wife, something that would last and be beautiful for years to come. Think of his words, “I wanted to give you something that you could always keep.” In the following weeks, we at SLU will focus on remembering and celebrating leaders and the lasting legacies of African Americans who have contributed significantly to our country.