To many millions of American Negroes, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the prophet of their crusade for racial equality. He was their voice of anguish, their eloquence in humiliation, their battle cry for human dignity. He forged for them the weapons of nonviolence that withstood and blunted the ferocity of segregation.
And to many millions of American whites, he was one of a group of Negroes who preserved the bridge of communication between races when racial warfare threatened the United States in the nineteen-sixties, as Negroes sought the full emancipation pledged to them a century before by Abraham Lincoln.
To the world Dr. King had the stature that accrued to a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, a man with access to the White House and the Vatican; a veritable hero in the African states that were just emerging from colonialism.
In his dedication to non-violence, Dr. King was caught between white and Negro extremists as racial tensions erupted into arson, gunfire and looting in many of the nation’s cities during the summer of 1967.
Floyd B. McKissick, when director of the Congress of Racial Equality, declared in August of that year that it was a “foolish assumption to try to sell nonviolence to the ghettos.”
And white extremists, not bothering to make distinctions between degrees of Negro militancy, looked upon Dr. King as one of their chief enemies.
At times in recent months, efforts by Dr. King to utilize nonviolent methods exploded into violence.
Violence in Memphis
Last week, when he led a protest march through downtown Memphis, Tenn., in support of the city’s striking sanitation workers, a group of Negro youths suddenly began breaking store windows and looting, and one Negro was shot to death.
At the time he was assassinated in Memphis, Dr. King was involved in one of his greatest plans to dramatize the plight of the poor and stir Congress to help Negroes.
He called this venture the “Poor People’s Campaign.” It was to be a huge “camp-in” either in Washington or in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention.
In one of his last public announcements before the shooting, Dr. King told an audience in a Harlem church on March 26:
“We need an alternative to riots and to timid supplication. Nonviolence is our most potent weapon.”
His strong beliefs in civil rights and nonviolence made him one of the leading opponents of American participation in the war in Vietnam. To him the war was unjust, diverting vast sums away from programs to alleviate the condition of the Negro poor in this country. He called the conflict “one of history’s most cruel and senseless wars.” Last January he said:
“We need to make clear in this political year, to Congressmen on both sides of the aisle and to the President of the United States that we will no longer vote for men who continue to see the killing of Vietnamese and Americans as the best way of advancing the goals of freedom and self- determination in Southeast Asia.”
Honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., Fifty Years After His Death ~ The New Yorker
This anniversary of his assassination falls amid the largest anti-gun-violence mobilization that we have seen since he departed.
Occasionally, a particular year transcends its function as a temporal marker to become shorthand for all the tumult that occurred within its parameters. 1968, a leap year, brought the Tet Offensive, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the student protests at Columbia University, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the bedlam of the Chicago Democratic Convention, the Black Power salutes at the Olympics, the emergence of George Wallace as an avatar of white-resentment politics, and the triumph of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy. That’s a great deal of history, even adjusting for the extra day in February.
We have not, in the past half century, had a year freighted with such emotional and historical heft, in part because we have not seen the convergence of so many defining issues—war, civil rights, populism, political realignment—in so short a timespan. Yet the singularity of 1968 does not diminish its pertinence to our present turmoil. This week, two events in particular are worth considering in tandem: one a cataclysm, the other a tragically predictive attempt to understand how such cataclysms occur.
On February 29, 1968, the bipartisan National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, which President Lyndon Johnson had established to examine the causes of the racial riots that had punctuated the four previous American summers, released its report. Five weeks later, King was shot dead on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis. Devastating riots broke out in several cities. Washington, D.C., where King had spoken four days earlier, exploded: four days of rioting resulted in thirteen deaths, as more than eight hundred fires burned in the city. Smaller conflagrations across the country were too many to number.
The Warren Report, which Johnson also established, in 1963, telescoped the vast implications of the assassination of John F. Kennedy down to the actions of a single individual. The Kerner Report, by contrast, critically rendered the failings of an array of institutions and social forces that had delivered the country to that moment of racial reckoning, beginning in the Colonial era and continuing through the formation of what were then called ghettos. The report stated, bluntly, that “what white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” Notably, the commission delved into questions that might have seemed ancillary at the time but became matters of enduring concern, such as access to health care and the dearth of African-Americans working in the media, a situation that impacted the skewed way in which the riots were covered. But the report is best remembered for its warning that, barring corrective measures, the nation would continue on its path toward becoming “two societies—one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
King’s assassination, on April 4th, in Memphis, where he had gone to support a sanitation-workers’ strike, and the desolation that followed it, seemed an instant validation of that forecast. In his final speech, delivered the night before he died, King considered his mortality: he knew, he said, that he might not get to the Promised Land. It is often remarked that he seemed to predict his own death, but he was speaking from past experience. When he was a twenty-six-year-old pastor, leading the Montgomery bus boycott, his family’s home was firebombed. At twenty-nine, he suffered a near-fatal stabbing in a Harlem department store. Right up to the instant he stepped out, at the age of thirty-nine, onto the balcony in Memphis, he lived under a pall.
The trauma of his death, resonant today even among those who were not yet born when he was alive, has both mythologized him and obscured the difficulties of his final years. His opposition to the Vietnam War damaged his standing with the Johnson Administration. His campaign for housing and economic redistribution in the North met with ugly resistance. Younger activists criticized him for being more moderate than the times demanded. According to a 1966 Gallup poll, two-thirds of Americans viewed him unfavorably.
The Montgomery bus boycotts. The marchers at Selma. The “I Have a Dream” speech.
From the moment he emerged as a civil rights icon during the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a movement whose successful protests are now shorthand for their era.
50 Years After Dr. King’s Death, Remembering the Women Who Steered the Movement
Video: How Dr. King Changed a Sanitation Worker’s Life
The Triumphs and Trials of Memphis
The Day King Was Shot: 26 Times Articles That Told the Story
Do You Know Anyone in These Civil Rights Photos?
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