Most often when people die suddenly, it comes as a terrible shock to those left behind. There is no warning or opportunity to say “good-bye.” Yet occasionally, there seems to be a supernatural sense that one will soon be departing this world. For instance, on July 7, 2016, Sergeant Mike Smith was one of the five Dallas police officers who died in a brutal massacre. Fifty-five-year-old Smith had been part of the Dallas Police department for 28 years. Following the policeman’s death, his daughter Caroline made news nationwide when the nine-year-old courageously shared his special good-bye to her before leaving for work that day. “What if this is the last time you ever kiss me or hug me?” Sgt. Smith had asked Caroline.
“That was probably the first time he ever said that,” the grief-stricken child told TV reporter, Omar Villafranca. Fighting back tears, she added that her father’s good-bye kiss was unusual, too. “It just felt different to me. I felt something bad was going to happen.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. possibly had an awareness that his time on Earth might also be short. In the civil rights leader’s famous sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct,” that he delivered two months before his April 4, 1968, assassination, there was a prophetic foretelling.
“And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral,” said Dr. King Jr., and near the end of the message. “… And every now and then I ask myself, ‘What is it that I would want said?’” Often, we only write about this dynamic leader during January when we celebrate the national holiday that honors his birthday or during February’s Black History month. For me, Dr. King Jr. is a role model all year long. This started, because of a long-ago conversation with a man incarcerated in an Ohio prison. “I don’t relate to those people you are using for examples of inspiring individuals who have bettered their lives,” said the young Black prisoner candidly.
Spending more than four years as a female prerelease speaker in the male prison system, I rarely had one-on-one conversations with inmates and never without staff present. That morning, this inmate could have corrected my oversight publicly during the question and answer session that followed my presentation to a large group at a medium security Ohio prison. But not wanting to embarrass me, he waited patiently until he could address me alone with only the social worker present. “Who would you relate to?” I asked, earnestly wanting to understand.
“People like me, who are Black, and maybe poor, or who have overcome problems more like mine,” he suggested. Instantly, I realized my illustrations of those who had overcome adversity to lead successful lives weren’t relatable. Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Edison might have had real obstacles, but they were white men in another era who had nothing to do with the challenges this inmate had experienced in society.
Living in a state institution as a teen myself, I could see how out of touch my examples were. I began studying the lives of a few African American men who had made incredible contributions to society in spite of daunting challenges. For instance, Ray Charles battled not only childhood poverty and blindness, but also decades of a heroin addiction. Still, the talented musician rose to fame, and finally beat heroin.
Then there was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., www.history.net reports that the Black leader suffered, “Personal abuse, arrest, and the bombing of his home…” Yet he never resorted to violence always offering a pathway of non-violent resistance with love as his primary weapon. I began incorporating testimonies of these courageous overcomers, and found that the wise inmate’s advice resulted in a greater response. Sometimes, I included a few lines from Dr. King Jr.’s prophetic “Drum Major” message of what he wanted at his funeral. He asked that his Nobel Peace Prize, his hundreds of awards, and schooling not be mentioned.
Instead, “I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others…. did try to feed the hungry…to clothe those who were naked…to visit those who were in prison…[and] …that I tried to love and serve humanity….”
Tragically, only two months later, a recording of these very words was played at his funeral. Another tragedy is that as time passes, we are forgetting this slain leader’s poignant example. He never stopped trying, and neither should we.
Christina Ryan Claypool is a freelance journalist and inspirational speaker. Contact her through her website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com.