Friday, April 04, 2008
At 6 pm, forty years ago today, a great voice was silenced. In this morning's New York Time's email, the last item, "On this Day in History", simply says-
On April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., 39, was shot to death in Memphis, Tenn.
Dr. King was one of the great Americans of not only the 20th century, but of our entire history. Nations are fortunate when they have men of vision and peace to guide them forward through times of turmoil- in the last century India had Ghandi, Poland had Lech Walensa and Pope John Paul II, the Soviet Union had Mikhail Gorbachev, and here in America we had Dr. King. We have seen, in recent years, how tragic it can be to have leaders who are not men of vision and peace in control when the nation faces danger and turmoil.
David Brooks had a moving piece in today's New York Times which talks about this, and I'm going to quote it in full before I continue with my own thoughts, because it is well worth considering-
On Wednesday morning I was in Memphis, and I walked over to the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 40 years ago today. I toured the National Civil Rights Museum and then went up to the room by the balcony where King was shot.
The Rev. Billy Kyles happened to be filming a documentary with his daughter Dwania as I arrived, going through a second-by-second account of the last moments of King’s life. The Rev. Kyles was with King when he was shot and was due to host him for dinner that evening.
You can watch Dwania’s documentary someday to hear his description of that afternoon, but I was curious for him to describe King’s mood during the final hour of his life. When you read the accounts of his final months, you get a sense of building pressure, of a rising atmosphere of menace and doom.
By 1968, King was under harsh assault not only from white racists but from the black power movement, which regarded his tactics as outdated and anodyne. His effort to stage a Poor People’s Campaign in Washington was in disarray. He was often sleepless and depressed.
He came to Memphis because of a sanitation workers’ strike. The garbage men were paid so little that they could work full time and still qualify for welfare. When two workers were killed because of unsafe trucks, the rest struck.
As Michael Honey notes in his compelling though crusading history, “Going Down Jericho Road,” the mayor of Memphis was unbending. The strike dragged on and tensions rose. The workers staged a march on Feb. 23, 1968, and the police responded with mace and clubs. The second rally, on March 28, was a microcosm of America at that moment. King stood at the head of the march, looking dazed. Around him in the front were the sanitation workers, with their concrete demands. But in the back of the crowd there were more radical and anarchic elements.
The looting and the rioting began almost immediately. King was whisked away. Hundreds were bloodied. One was killed. The authorities were driven both by the desire to restore order and by their own racist demons.
That march was a pivot. In both the white and black communities, the forces of order and reform vied with the forces of hatred and anarchy. The latter grabbed the upper hand.
The atmosphere deteriorated. The National Guard was sent in. There were weapons everywhere. This week I ran into Bobby Martin, whose father was a sanitation worker during the period. “I saw fear on my hero’s face,” Martin recalled.
Everybody sensed that this was heading toward disaster. King expressed premonitions of his murder in the “Mountaintop” speech. City officials worried about his assassination to reporters. The K.K.K. stayed out of Memphis so it wouldn’t get blamed if he was killed.
And yet, the Rev. Kyles noted, “he preached himself through the fear of death.” The next day, in the privacy of the hotel room, he was happy and domestic. He had a brief pillow fight. He talked about soul food and what tie to wear. It was just three reverends sitting around, Kyles remembered, talking “preacher talk.”
Then King walked out onto the balcony and the forces that were swirling outside intervened. James Earl Ray’s bullet sliced the knot of his tie. Riots commenced, and in the ensuing years, crime rates skyrocketed, cities decayed and the social fabric was torn. Dreams of economic opportunity and racial integration were swallowed up by the antinomian passions and social disorder.
The key tension in King’s life was over how to push relentlessly for change but within an existing moral structure. But by the late-60s many felt the social structure needed to be torn down. The assassin’s bullet set off a conflagration.
At King’s funeral, the marshals told the throngs that nobody should chew gum because it would look undignified. But niceties like that were obsolete.
Building the social fabric after the disruption of that period has been the work of the subsequent generations — weaving the invisible web of family, neighborhood and national obligations so that people stay in school, attend to their kids and have an opportunity to rise if they play by the rules.
Progress has been slow. Nearly a third of American high school students don’t graduate (half in the cities). Seventy percent of African-American kids are born out of wedlock. Poverty rates in Memphis have scarcely dropped.
Martin Luther King Jr. at least left behind a model of how to repair the social fabric. He was scholarly, formal, assertive and meticulously self-controlled in public. If Barack Obama’s presidential campaign represents anything, it is the triumph of King’s early-60s style of activism over the angry and reckless late-60s style. King was in crisis when he was gunned down. But his inspiration is outlasting his critics.
It may be a generational thing, the ability to be deeply, emotionally moved in a certain way by by Dr. King's words. It may be that you have to have lived in the last four or five decades of the 20th century to understand how far we have come as a nation to where we are today. On NPR yesterday someone commented that anyone who thinks things are not a lot better today obviously was not alive back then. I was born a little too late to be fully aware of the turmoil, racism and hatred at the time, but the violence of the 50s and early 60s were bitter, fresh memories, and seemed very close. People carried them around in their pockets, and they rubbed at the back of our throats.
And so I still tear up when I watch or listen to his very last speech, delivered the night before his death-
[here is the entire speech, it's well worth listening to- Part One - Part Two]
America today is in much the same place she was back then- amidst great turmoil, held in the grip of uncertainty and fear, unsure how to move ahead, but longing to find some way forward. On the night of Dr. King's death, Robert F. Kennedy, who himself had just a few short months to live, was giving a speech before an African-American audience who had not yet heard the tragic news of the assassination. His speech that night shows the kind of leader he might have been-
His words give me hope that perhaps we can once again find someone who can help us forward. If there was a Dr. King, and there was a Robert F. Kennedy, surely we can once again find someone, from a new generation, who can help the country heal, lead us forward, and bring us together rather than splitting us apart for their own cynical, political gain. I find it compelling that today, on this tragic anniversary, America stands at a crossroads and we are in the midst of a new Presidential race featuring two candidates whose race and gender would have been unimaginable forty years ago.
That has got to give us all hope.