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I like to think that members of our national criminal defense bar association, formed in 1958, have served as drum majors for justice over the past 65 years. And our march toward a more perfect union continues. So, we shall not grow weary or flag in our fight for freedom and equal justice under law. Issues that resonated then — including the struggle for civil rights and racial justice — still occupy us today, with no less sense of urgency. Therefore, when we celebrate the legacy of NACDL as we did at our Redemption Gala on October 19, let us make the most of every moment so that together we can pass the baton to future generations.
‘A Sneeze Away from Death’
Let us take inspiration from a story that took place in a New York City department store in the year of our founding, 1958, when an African American author was autographing his book Stride Toward Freedom. A woman emerged from the crowd, holding an ivory-handled, steel letter opener, seven inches long. She buried it to the hilt right by his heart. Onlookers rushed him to Harlem Hospital, where he underwent two hours of surgery. He survived. But the moment made him appreciate how quickly he — and our society — could succumb to the forces of chaos.
The author at the book signing was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. How close had he come to death? One of his surgeons stated, “Had Dr. King sneezed or coughed, the weapon would have penetrated his aorta. … He was just a sneeze away from death.”
‘Tell Them About the Dream, Martin!’
Five years later, that incident informed his “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963 — 60 years ago. This remains one of the iconic speeches in American history. He opened with a shout out to President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. But he noted that 100 years later in America, Black people still were not free.
Dr. King stuck to his prepared copy until the celebrated gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
Then he summoned his speaking skills as a Baptist minister and perorated on soaring images and themes of equality and freedom arising from a land steeped in slavery, systemic oppression, exploitation, and hatred. He spoke in the cadence of a sermon and delivered one of the most powerful closing arguments ever for racial justice. You can toss the script aside when fire writes the words on your heart.
Dr. King knew the value of freedom, the meaning of justice, and the quality of mercy. That is why he did not want charges pressed against the woman who stabbed him. He bore no animus toward that woman, who suffered from mental illness. But he never forgot his close encounter. In fact, he referenced that near-fatal incident in his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” in 1968. Maybe because he felt a sense of prescience, the day before his assassination, Dr. King said in that speech, “The X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, you’re drowned in your own blood — that’s the end of you.”
‘I’m So Happy’
He continued that among all the condolences he received while recovering in Harlem Hospital, there was one that “I will never forget.”
“Dear Dr. King,” that letter read. “I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School. While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”
Dr. King informed the applauding crowd that if he had sneezed, then he would not have witnessed the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s or given his “I Have a Dream” speech.
And so, Dr. King concluded, “I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.” The following day, Dr. King succumbed to an assassin’s bullet. But the dream lives on because he passed on the baton. And we must accept it. We must run our leg of the relay. Part of what powers our legs is our confidence in the power of redemption.
Dr. King knew the power of redemption. From his Harlem Hospital bed in 1958, he wrote of “the redemptive power of nonviolence,” and stated that he knew that “thoughtful people will do all in their power to see that she gets the help she apparently needs if she is to become a free and constructive member of society.” Doesn’t it sound like among these “thoughtful people,” Dr. King had criminal defense lawyers in mind?
The woman who attacked him did not go to prison; she received psychiatric care and died of natural causes in a nursing home in 2015 at the age of 98. She far outlived Dr. King but not his legacy. That is because Dr. King knew the importance of being the right person, in the right place, at the right time in history to be a drum major for justice.
When Dr. King survived the first assassination attempt in 1958, he focused his mind not on retribution but on the power of redemption. And in that same year, that is part of what NACDL’s founders focused on, too. I thank all who journeyed to Washington, D.C., to join me at the Redemption Gala in celebration of our 65th anniversary on October 19 at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of the American Indian. This was a fitting celebration of our history and rededication to our shared struggle. Let us commemorate, celebrate, and provide NACDL with the leadership, followship, fellowship, and resources to pass the baton to future generations. The needs now are as great or greater than ever. But so are our talents and capacities. Ensuring the legacy of NACDL for the next 65 years and beyond is nothing to shrink from and nothing to sneeze at.
I am grateful for all the generous organizations and individuals who supported our Redemption Gala. If you have not yet taken the opportunity to show your support and help pass the baton to future generations, please know that the NACDL Foundation for Criminal Justice is still accepting donations at www.nacdl.org/Gala/2023.
About the Author
Michael P. Heiskell is the owner of Johnson, Vaughn & Heiskell in the Fort Worth-Dallas, Texas area. He represents individuals and entities in state and federal courts throughout the country, with an emphasis on white collar investigations and prosecutions. He is a past president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association.