MISHAWAKA, Ind. (OSV News) — Almost everyone familiar with the life and death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knows the value that the civil rights leader put on living a long life. The phrase “longevity has its place” is now enshrined within his last speech, given the night before King’s murder in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4,1968.
That fateful day, Franciscan Sisters Jane Marie Klein and Sister Anna Marie Hofmeyer were both in Memphis ministering at Saint Joseph Catholic Hospital. Saint Joseph’s was the only Catholic health care facility in Memphis in 1968, and King — just 39 years old — was brought there after being shot by an assassin.
“We were not allowed to go into the ER when they (the doctors) were working on him, but after Dr. King was pronounced dead, we were admitted to it and the authorities gave us the time we needed to pray with him,” Sister Jane Marie told OSV News.
This coming Jan. 15 would have been King’s 94th birthday, although the holiday will be observed in 2023 on Monday, Jan. 16. King only led the civil rights movement for 13 years, but they were eventful ones that changed American society forever.
“I have looked back on that sad night often over the years, because it is not something that you forget, and many people — including African Americans — are so surprised and amazed, and they just can’t believe it,” said the sister.
Looking back on King’s short life — and those critical 13 years during which he led the civil rights movement — Sister Jane Marie told OSV News, “I see him as such a wonderful, wonderful man of peace, because he fit so well into our Franciscan beliefs. And it was his God that gave him the strength to do what he did.”
She said King was “such a man of faith: one whose whole focus was on peace and people.”
“We will never know why he requested to go to a Catholic hospital should the worst happen — and it really doesn’t matter,” Sister Jane Marie said. “The important thing is that we pray for him and remember him on his birthday and the anniversary of his [April 4] death, because his memory still resonates with us.”
The Sisters did not meet with King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, immediately following his death because she had canceled her trip to Memphis upon hearing that he had been killed.
“She returned to Atlanta to care for their children, knowing that she could not be of any help to him, but Sister Anna Marie and myself did meet her in 1999,” Sister Jane Marie said. “She was the keynote speaker at our Catholic Health Care Assembly. She met with us for just 30 minutes, but I am so grateful for that time and our one meeting.”
Now 84 years old, Sister Jane Marie continues her lifelong work with Catholic Health Care and the Franciscan Alliance. She refuses to speculate on what King’s career might have been had he lived.
“I do believe however, that he would be extremely disappointed with the state of our country today, and the total lack of respect for anyone who disagrees with anyone else that is plaguing it,” Sister Jane said.
“It is important to remember that we are all made in the image of God for the greater glory of God,” she said, “even if that other person agrees or disagrees with us.”