Filled with gratitude for King’s life, I hope that the multitude of acts of generosity and kindness that we pour into each other in these weeks will transform relationships and challenge the very structure of our societies.

Given this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic before us, and all the uncertainties that occupy our minds, it seems odd to be thinking about the events of 1968. I wasn’t alive then, but I can’t help but reflect on the lessons I’ve learned from my elders who were. It is not lost on me that some of my teachers are the very ones whose lives are threatened by this moment. They risked their lives for our collective freedom — not in military campaigns, but in wars against Jim Crow and poverty — and survived. The fascists they faced weren’t dictators in other countries, they were governors, state legislators and congressmen. There were no medals given for their heroism and no state funerals held for the fallen — and yet I believe they are owed as much, if not more, than any veteran of foreign wars. 

April 4, 1968, marks the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. His death sent waves of grief throughout the United States and around the world. He was killed a year to the date of his famous speech criticizing U.S. foreign policy and the war in Vietnam and died at a time when his popularity was at its lowest. I imagine that it would have been hard in that moment for his friends and loved ones to find gratitude, as it always is when someone is struck down in the prime of their life. He was only 39 years old. 

My elders have taught me that mourning, at least in the Black Church tradition, is also a thanksgiving.

My elders have taught me that mourning, at least in the Black Church tradition, is also a thanksgiving. As his body lay in state in Sister’s Chapel at Atlanta’s Spelman College, the thousands of people who poured in to say goodbye to their beloved brother Martin were also giving thanks. As his casket was carried down Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue in the mule-drawn carriage, the grief was thick in the air, but so too was the gratitude for a life lived in the fullness of love for a people who fully loved him in return. It was this love that was the source of his charismatic power; it was this love that was the well from which he drew his courage, and the warmth in which he could find rest. 

One of the lessons I learned from Vincent Harding was how grateful King was to the community that surrounded him. This gratitude was not limited to those who supported him. It extended to his most famous detractors, whether it was the young SNCC activists always pushing the movement forward or Brother Malcolm, who knew better the suffering inequities of the northern ghettos. King’s relationship to the black community did not diminish his love for all humankind — quite the opposite, it made it possible. King’s prophetic wisdom was born from a community that understood what it means to value life. It was a community that despite or maybe even because of the hardships it faced, had a disposition of gratitude: gratitude for the love received and given, gratitude for sacrifices made, gratitude for the hope that was nurtured. It’s a gratitude that in some ways transcends time. It teaches me that my life is the product of efforts of generations before and it must be lived in contribution to generations that will come. Such a disposition of gratitude situates one well to know what can be and must be done to challenge inequity. It situates one to see opportunity where others see despair. 

In this moment, amid this new global pandemic, many are seeing an unprecedented opportunity for humanity to recognize our shared interest as a species.

In this moment, amid this new global pandemic, many are seeing an unprecedented opportunity for humanity to recognize our shared interest as a species. There is hope that we will all emerge from this experience changed, for the better. King is among a long list of 20th Century prophets who called for an expansion of conscience amid the widespread degradation of human dignity witnessed in his time. The pandemic has already laid bare the faultiness in our global systems and it threatens to exacerbate the already existing inequities that we’ve allowed to plague our lives together for a long time. This is indeed an opportunity to change how we see each other; to recognize the shared nature of life on this planet. What we accomplish in this moment will matter for generations to come. 

After King’s assassination, Howard Thurman delivered a eulogy on the radio from Accra, Ghana. He concluded that address with these words, “[Martin Luther King Jr.] was killed in one sense because mankind is not human yet, may he live because all of us in America are closer to becoming human than we ever were before…” Filled with gratitude for King’s life, I hope that the multitude of acts of generosity and kindness that we pour into each other in these weeks will transform relationships and challenge the very structure of our societies. I hope amid all the admonitions about what may not be done for our health and safety, we learn what can be done and must be done for our collective wellbeing as a species. I mourn for lives that have already been taken. The death that this pandemic brings is not welcome, and yet, my spiritual tradition calls me to remember that death can also be a beginning — and for that I am profoundly grateful. May this be a beginning of a path that leads to a fuller humanity than we’ve ever known before.

As part of his work with IFOR, Lucas incubated a Beloved Communities Project in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium; and helped to create an Ethics of Reciprocity initiative with the United Nations. He will draw on and extend this work through CCP.

In September 2019, Lucas joined us as a panelist in Radical Aliveness and Belonging: Exploring the Intersections of Spirituality and Social Change, a symposium co-sponsored by A Network for Grateful Living and SCUA UMass Amherst.


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Lucas Johnson

Lucas Johnson

About the author

Lucas Johnson serves as Executive Director of On Being’s Civil Conversations Project (CCP) and is a former leader of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR), the world’s oldest interfaith peace organization. Lucas has deep, global experience in conflict resolution and community organizing. He has been shaped by his time learning from veterans of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., most closely Vincent Harding and Dorothy Cotton, and by his work with human rights activists around the world, especially in Africa, Europe, and Latin America.