Today marks the murder of Martin Luther King in 1968, even as a racial uproar does violence to his memory.
The gulf between reactions to his death then, universal public grief, and that of Trayvon Martin tells much about how America has changed in those years.
Even when still alive, Dr. King’s preaching of peaceful protest was being challenged by angrier voices of Black Power and Black Panthers. Yet, in his 39 years on earth, he changed the face of America, culminating in a 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed segregation and began moving toward racial equality for decades without stirring hatred.
Politically, the country back then, in a bipartisan effort, was ending almost a century of Southern oppression under Democrats. Now, that former region of slavery has morphed into a solid bloc of Republican states united in bitter, personalized hatred of the first African-American president.
What would Martin Luther King, if still alive in his eighties, make of the racial, social and political battle being fought over the body of a dead teenager and the man who shot him? Would he see it, as it surely is, to be a proxy war on both sides over an African-American’s leadership during three years of hard times?
From the start in 1955, King renounced hate. Although harassed, arrested, with a bomb exploding on his front porch, he would not respond with violence. “If we are arrested every day,” he told followers in the Montgomery bus strike, “if we are exploited every day, if we are trampled over every day, don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate him. We must use the weapon of love.”
Yet, there was nothing soft or passive about his civil disobedience in protests throughout the South, drawing support of whites as well as blacks. Like JFK, King understood the emerging importance of television, but he went beyond words and used the power of body rhetoric. He planned marches to elicit images of brutality against his people——guns, clubs, police dogs and high—pressure fire hoses——for the evening news.
When King gave his “I have a dream” speech to 250,000 peaceful demonstrators in Washington, Kennedy congratulated him in the White House that night. During the day, he was nowhere in sight. It remained for a Southerner, Lyndon Johnson, to push through civil rights laws and tell a joint session of Congress, “We shall overcome.”
Dr. King understood the power of public opinion but not for self-aggrandizement. He wrote a Christmas memoir for my magazine in 1966, but typically not about himself. He had rented an apartment in a Chicago ghetto to connect with black gang members: “I was shocked at the venom they poured out against the world. All their lives boys like this have known life as a madhouse of violence and degradation.”
He persuaded them to join him in a Freedom March through Mississippi, where they were “attacked by tear gas. They were to protect women and children with no other weapons but their own bodies. To them, it would be a strange and possibly nonsensical way to respond to violence. But they reacted splendidly. They learned in Mississippi and returned to teach in Chicago the beautiful lesson of acting against evil by renouncing force...They revitalized my own faith in nonviolence.”
Now, on the anniversary of his own violent death, the country is being torn apart again by racial rage on both sides of the divide he tried to heal. If that isn’t a hate crime, what is?