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Commentary: When MLK died, one man reached across the divide

When one great man was killed, another tried to calm the nation.

Posted on Fri, Apr. 04, 2008

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Martin Luther King stood on a motel balcony facing a row of rundown buildings near downtown Memphis. The door to Room 306 was open behind him. Inside, his best friend, Ralph Abernathy, was putting on cologne, getting ready to go out. In the parking lot below, his aides, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson and James Orange among them, waited for him. Musician Ben Branch was there, too. ''Ben,'' he said, ''make sure you play Precious Lord,Take My Hand at the meeting tonight. Sing it real pretty.'' Branch promised he would.

At first, Abernathy thought the popping sound was a firecracker. Then he saw King, sprawled on the balcony floor, clutching at his throat where the bullet had ripped it open. Abernathy ran to him. King's mouth quivered. ''I got a message from his eyes,'' Abernathy would later say.

This was 40 years ago, April 4, 1968, a night when civic leaders in Miami implored their people to keep the peace, even as tragedy spiraled into violence across the country. But also, a night when tragedy was elevated into greatness and grace. Most people don't know that part of the story, even now. [More…]


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