It was one of those seminal moments in history when people, in the oft-repeated phrase, “remember where they were” at the time.
Dec. 7, 1941 — Pearl Harbor. Nov. 22, 1963 — the death of President John F. Kennedy. July 20, 1969 — men walk on the moon. Sept. 11, 2001 — terrorist attacks on the U.S.
April 4, 1968 — the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
There’s a reason people remember the details of the time so well years later. It isn’t just that these episodes themselves were shocking, newsworthy or memorable. More so, each event cleaved a huge split in its time, the Before and After, what was and what became. They represent dividing lines in the nation’s timeline that could only be measured in the years that followed, and in reflection, how they altered history.
Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II, which cost millions of lives and spawned the nuclear age. Kennedy’s assassination ended a false age of innocence and sparked the tumultuous 1960s. The moon walk changed perspective and made the world seem smaller. The 9/11 attacks brought worldwide Islamic terrorism home and ignited a war on two fronts that still hasn’t ended.
King’s murder did more than end one chapter in the civil rights struggle in lieu of another. His mission, while transformational, was still incomplete at the time. Though the nation had adopted the Civil Rights Act a few years before, marking the beginning of the end of Jim Crow institutional segregation, the battle had hardly been won in 1968. King was in Memphis supporting a strike by sanitation workers who felt underpaid and abused, one of many groups still facing that uphill climb.
By that time, other more radical elements had entered the civil rights arena seeking to drown out King’s message of nonviolence. Many considered him too mild and meek to represent their aggressive approach.
But through the distant lens of history, a few visions appear clearly. One is that King’s resistance to eye-for-an-eye vengeance is frozen in time, and his martyrdom may have helped quiet some of the more extreme voices. We’ll never know what might have happened had he lived, but his stature is set in stone.
More importantly, while King’s life and death strengthened the resolve of African-Americans seeking the “promised land” of which he spoke of, white America was forever changed. Many in 1968 may have been somewhat supportive but less fervently so than the times warranted. Even those who opposed discrimination may have grown weary of seeing protests each night on the evening news, likely believing they were aimed at “other people” and didn’t affect them directly.
The bullet that killed King delivered, for everyone, clear notice that the evil of racial prejudice was real, potent and savage. The antithesis of nonviolence is, of course, violence, which makes us recoil in horror. The Memphis gunman didn’t debate King, counter his ideals, write a letter to the editor or deliver his own speech arguing in favor of segregation, as others had done. He didn’t engage in peaceful civil disobedience, as did King and his followers.
Instead, he took a rifle, shot and killed a minister, a man of God, in cold blood. This wasn’t an effort to oppose equality based on some kind of reason; it was a barbaric attempt to silence the man who revealed a truth many didn’t want to hear.
And it failed. If the killer’s goal was to end the civil rights movement by removing its most revered champion, it did just the opposite. Many Americans who may have been on the fence over racial tensions and what to do about them now knew to what extent such bigotry was entrenched in hatred, cruelty and bloodshed. All people of good conscience who reject such a malicious act could clearly see King’s way as the light and those who opposed it with brutality as the darkness. From that stark contrast, passive minds were changed and a society began to be redirected.
Winning over white America was ultimately King’s aim, and his genius. He knew he didn’t have to convince African-Americans change was needed, only to inspire them to action and maintain pacifism while protesting. His strategy was to get the Ward and June Cleavers behind their picket fences in their tranquil neighborhoods to understand what was going on under society’s peaceful veneer, and show them how generations of Americans had been denied their constitutional rights.
He made much progress doing so in life, but tragically, it may have been his death that shook many from the complacency of the status quo and drive the point home.
And sadly, many of his followers resorted to riots following his slaying, though the voices of reason were able to restore order. It showed that a peaceful response to violence isn’t the natural human default but requires diligence and strength.
It’s a point that remains relevant in a time when supremacists, neo-Nazis and Klansmen are again on the march, not just against blacks but also Latinos, Muslims and all who look, believe and act differently. The struggle could still be lost if right-thinking people don’t actively oppose their poisonous agenda.
Because of Martin Luther King, there are more people on the right side of those battle lines than there once were. His life and death brought fresh legions to the never-ending struggle for equality, justice and fairness.
And his life’s work is likely the key reason the last 50 years have advanced those ideals further than in the centuries before he walked the streets of a segregated nation.
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