The immediate response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago was one of fire and fury.
King’s murder on April 4, 1968, on a motel balcony in Memphis silenced the civil rights movement’s most persuasive, gifted and foresighted leader and lit tinderboxes across the country.
Riots exploded in 125 cities whose ghettos were already seething with frustration and anger over poor housing conditions, substandard public schools, unchecked police brutality and unemployment rates that for young black men were as much as seven times that of mainstream America.
Nationally, 43 people died, 3,500 were injured and 27,000 arrested in violence during the 10 days following King’s murder, according to Peter B. Levy’s new book about race riots in the 1960s,The Great Uprising.
Damage estimates reached upwards of $65 million – about $442 million today.
The Holy Week Uprising, as the riots are collectively known, appeared to give the country the reason it needed to give up on the ghettos. No longer would solutions for the hard problems of impoverished urban blacks, as outlined in the Kerner Commission report on the 1967 riots released barely a month earlier, be a national priority.
Instead, law and order became a dog whistle of the campaign of Richard M. Nixon, whose presidency would usher in the militarization of local police instead of significant economic cures. The long-term and large-scale effect of King’s death was the intractable hardening of negative racial attitudes and widening economic disparity he warned of in the last three years of his life.
“His earlier life is remembered. The last three years of his life and what he was working on are forgotten, ” said Clayborne Carson, 73, a Stanford University history professor and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, which edits and publishes King’s papers.
By 1968, King had run up against backlash both from the civil rights movement and the larger society. As younger leaders like Stokely Carmichael adopted a more militant tone, King pushed back against the Black Power movement’s goals of self-sufficiency and self-segregation, saying true racial equality would not be achieved without maintenance of a nonviolent philosophy and alliances with sympathetic whites.
After the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts in 1964 and 1965, King looked to build on his successes by focusing on what he considered society’s three main evils: war, poverty and racial injustice. In addition to denouncing the Vietnam War, he broadened his civil rights agenda to include people of all races who had been left behind economically, a move that drew controversy and perhaps even ire.
“King was asking for a major redistribution of wealth,” Carson said. “Most people looked upon that voting (rights) was sufficient. Much of white America looked at the civil rights gains and said, `We’re not going to give you any more.’
“But King had a different vision, a vision of where we should have been going for the last 50 years. That’s the unfinished business of the 1960s.”
King understood the dangers and far-reaching consequences of racial segregation, said Beverly Daniel Tatum, 63, President Emerita of Spelman College in Atlanta.
“Racism in the U.S. is a problem that can’t be solved without the active participation of white people,” said Tatum, a clinical psychologist and author of 1997’s best-selling “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race.” It’s been updated with a new prologue for a 20th-anniversary edition.
In it, Tatum lists the ground lost since the ‘60s in terms of increased mass incarceration of African-Americans, the staggering loss of wealth among African-Americans caused by the mortgage crisis of 2008, the re-segregation of schools, and the misinformation that shapes racial attitudes of whites who have no significant personal contact with people who are different.
“Racially in this country, for every two steps forward it’s one step back,” she said.
King also understood the need to work through legislatures and the courts to enforce civil rights. Resources needed to be used to litigate, not just march in the streets, said Nathaniel Jones, 91, a retired federal appeals court judge in Cincinnati who in 1967 and 1968 was assistant general counsel to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, otherwise known as the Kerner Commission.
After King’s death, Jones said, “his opponents worked like beavers on the local level, on city councils, school boards, in state legislatures. Most pronounced were their efforts against the implementation of federal orders to end school segregation.”
“If Dr. King had lived, he would have been able to define his philosophy with precision, and he would have presented a path toward solutions,” Jones said. “The leaders who followed him didn’t have the sophistication that King did and did not have the vision to see what has come to pass in this country — voter repression, assaults on affirmative action, this attempt to `take America back.’ But back to where?”
Before his death, King had appointed Bernard Lafayette, a former student activist in Nashville, as coordinator of the Poor People’s Campaign that King had initiated in late 1967.
The two men spoke in Memphis, where King had gone to support striking sanitation workers, the very morning of King’s death. They planned to meet in Washington, D.C., within a day or two to discuss the campaign.
King never made the trip. He was on his way from the Lorraine Motel to dinner when, at 6:01 p.m., a bullet struck him in the jaw and severed his spinal cord. King, 39, was pronounced dead upon arrival at a Memphis hospital.
“The last thing he said to me is that we needed to figure out a way to institutionalize and internationalize nonviolence,” said Lafayette, an early organizer of the Selma voting rights movement in Alabama who later had major roles with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Lafayette took King’s charge to heart and has spent his life promoting King’s principles of nonviolence in 30 states and in 60 countries. Much of his domestic work has been in prisons.
“There was no one else like him. He was prophetic,” Lafayette, now 77, said of King. “The musical intonation of his voice moved people. They felt the spirit of what he was saying. He was a good listener, too, very patient. He didn’t dismiss anyone, even those who’d once opposed him. He was inclusive, not exclusive.”
Black Lives Matter and other contemporary African-American groups have begun a fuller examination of King’s controversial last years. In January 2015, Black Lives Matter organizations in many states presented programs on the “militant King.” They counter the “I Have a Dream” King of 1963, the King whose dream of a world of equality existed somewhere in the future, as if in a distant mist.
King provided a blueprint for his final crusade in 1967 in the pages of his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
In it, he called for legal protections for those living in public housing and receiving public assistance. He wrote that “arbitrary lines of government should not balkanize America into white and black schools and communities.” He promoted government subsidy for businesses to employ people of limited education and expansion of workplace training also paid for by the government.
“We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. … We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.”