Anyone who complains about the crazy pace of the news cycle in the Trump era wasn’t around for the week that started on March 31, 1968 — seven days that shook America to its foundation. It started with President Lyndon Johnson’s shock announcement on that Sunday night that, rattled by the Vietnam War, he wouldn’t run for re-election. On Thursday, April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis, and his death triggered major riots in a slew of American cities. But one other remarkable thing about that grim week can get lost: There were delivered, within a 24-hour span, two of the greatest speeches in modern American history.
The first came on the night of April 3 by Dr. King, the so-called Mountaintop speech in a church in Memphis, where he was fighting on behalf of striking sanitation workers. The civil rights icon was chillingly prescient about his unfinished mission and the enormous risks he was taking. These were the very final words he would ever speak in public:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
It was less than a day later, just after 6 p.m. on April 4, that King lay dying on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The news broke just as Sen. Robert F. Kennedy — whose presidential campaign was soaring upon word of LBJ’s withdrawal — was about to speak at a park in a mostly black neighborhood in Indianapolis. There were scattered reports of violence and street demonstrations in numerous cities as word of MLK’s murder spread; aides begged Kennedy to cancel, but instead he spoke to a gathered crowd (who apparently mostly hadn’t heard of the assassination yet) from the back of a truck…and from the heart.
For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with — be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man….What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another; and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
Unfortunately, there were many cities and only one RFK. Indianapolis remained calm, but the uprisings that occurred in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Baltimore and other U.S. cities claimed several dozen lives and caused tens of millions of dollars in property damage. Many African-Americans — and others — had a hard time seeing any way forward in a nation where a beacon such as Martin Luther King could be silenced. Cleophus Smith was a striking Memphis sanitation worker who’d been in the audience to hear MLK’s stirring Mountaintop speech. But when King was killed, he recalled, “The only thing I could think of was that all hope was gone.”
Those fears were somewhat realized. When the wider America finally moved to formally recognize the amazing things that King had done — with Ronald Reagan signing the bill to create a national holiday around his birthday in 1983 — it seemed part of a broader deal to also whitewash the large radical piece of his legacy, to “pull quote” his beautiful and heartfelt words about brotherhood but also hope folks would forget about his unfinished battles, against social injustice … and much more.
In the last years of his life — feted with a Nobel Peace Prize for helping expand civil and voting rights, but stung by the riots that broke out in the second half of the 1960s — King turned toward of much broader critique of what was (and still is) wrong in America. He fought against the military-industrial complex, opposing the war in Vietnam as immoral even after his closest advisers begged him not to, and against economic unfairness and inequality.
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar,” King said in 1967, as he stepped up his criticism of American-style capitalism. “It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” At the time of his death, King was immersed in his plan for a Poor People’s March on Washington to demand an end to poverty. Forces with the U.S. government began to see this new King as more of a threat, at a time when FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s greatest fear was that a “black Messiah” would spark revolutionary change. That fear may or may not explain why King died in Memphis — but it undoubtedly explains the decades of backlash that followed.
Some of the most powerful and enduring words ever spoken by King, adapted from 19th-Century abolitionists, were that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The reality of the five decades that followed April 4, 1968, have been more complicated — less of an arc and more of a twisted pretzel. The concrete results of what King and many other civil rights fighters, the famous and the forgotten, won in the 1960s were seen in a surge of elected black officials, culminating in a black president, and real gains for non-whites in the workplace, college campuses and elsewhere, at least when compared to the nadir of segregation. But those developments — along with the hijacking of Dr. King’s most hopeful words by politicians who surely would have called King “a commie” during the 1960s, or by big corporations selling pick-up trucks — have obscured a lot of backwards bending when it comes to that moral arc.
A “war on drugs” fought largely on black turf, the cornerstone of a mass-incarceration regime unlike anywhere in the world. A rollback in voting rights that would have been unthinkable in the heady days after Selma. Public schools that are both ridiculously unequal and, increasingly, re-segregated. And a blind refusal to confront the annual killing of 1,000 U.S. citizens by police, including disturbing numbers of non-whites, the unarmed, or both. Sure, some Republicans still love to fantasize that the MLK of their Dodge Ram-driving dreams would have condemned the Black Lives Matter movement, but the real King would be marching right now in Sacramento, seeking justice for Stephon Clark — maybe even calling out the white moderates who sat on the sidelines.
And yet as time does its thing, King’s words about the arc of the moral universe are looking more and more like most of the other things that the pastor said during his lifetime: Prophetic. It turns out that it would take a new generation — unburdened by all the chaos of the 1960s and all of the nonsense that followed, trained to venerate MLK and what he stood for — to pick up the torch that was nearly extinguished in the gloaming of Memphis. The hundreds of thousands who flocked to Washington for the March for Our Lives emerged from the granite shadow of justice’s drum major on the National Mall to become the spiritual heir to the Poor People’s March that was denied Dr. King.
If the unbroken arc wasn’t clear enough for all to see, King’s granddaughter, Yolanda Renee King, was there to drive it home. “I have a dream that enough is enough,” the 9-year-old said, as the D.C. multitude roared. “And that this should be a gun-free world, period.”
His legacy lives on: Watch the powerful moment Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s granddaughter rallied the crowd at D.C.'s #MarchForOurLives: https://t.co/F2k2c9g5uw #HonoringMLK pic.twitter.com/0bL4xMldQ7
— Honoring MLK 50 (@HonoringMLK) March 27, 2018
What’s remarkable about the new youth movement is how quickly a new generation has absorbed the things that MLK and his generation developed over a lifetime — forging a diverse coalition between city and suburb, non-white and white, and across many other lines. And seeing the interconnectivity of all these issues — how gun violence is related to the underfunding of education, for example — much as King revealed the links between war, poverty and injustice.
Is it any wonder that even those of us from the most jaded generation — those of us who were kids and young adults when King was assassinated — are feeling stirrings of optimism, even with the current mess at the White House? Cleophus Smith, the Memphis sanitation worker (still, at age 75) who was so stung by King’s murder, is feeling it, “‘ cause we can fight,” he said the other day. “We’re going to keep the dream alive and we’re going to move forward.”
Martin Luther King knew he probably wouldn’t get over the mountaintop. Frankly, that’s going to be a hard climb for a lot of us. But that didn’t make it any less exhilarating to watch Yolanda Renee King, the kids from Parkland, Florida, and their incredible peers finally begin the final assault on that summit, re-lighting a lamp that’s barely smoldered for the last 50 years.