Martin Luther King’s presence during the 1960s had glowed like a candle that beckoned all Americans forward to a kinder, safer place. But, it was a long and stormy night and, as the decade progressed, the steady flame began to waver. The man who placed nonviolence above all other instruments of social protest began to have momentary doubts that his philosophy was going to prevail. An incident in Missouri last week proved that his doubt was well-founded.
At his lowest moments, Dr. King must have wondered if the hatred just too ingrained to be dispelled without violence. The same country that, just two decades earlier, had defeated a megalomaniac’s quest to establish a dominant super race, was now tearing itself apart over what was, essentially, a carefully crouched reiteration of the same quest.
The origins, like most of the evils that still flourish in America, were mostly economic, but they had been nurtured by what seems to be a component part of the human psyche: The need to feel superior to someone else. The difference in skin color is an easy way to accomplish that.
True, America had been embroiled in a devastating civil war to obliterate the scourge of slavery, but racism is a different issue. Slavery was gone, but the insidious, corrosive effect of racism, of both the overt and officially-cloaked variety, is still alive and fully operational.
Tavis Smiley, who hosts a commentary program on PBS, has written a book about the last year of Dr. King’s life. "Death of a King," will be published by Little Brown in September.
Dr. King’s movement was dedicated to eradicating the three aspects of our society that he viewed as the most detrimental to the country’s future: poverty, racism, and the rise of militarism. During the momentous final year of his life, Dr. King entwined the three of them. If the position seems obvious in retrospect, in 1967, it pitted King against one of his closest allies in the battle against bigotry and poverty.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was a formidable adversary. He had been the driving force behind the establishment of the Great Society programs and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, two of the most significant advances in civil rights in American history. Although the president was probably savvy enough to understand that the war in Southeast Asia was a hopeless morass, he had staked his presidency upon it, reiterating Dwight Eisenhower’s opinion that, if Vietnam fell to communism, it would have a domino effect on that entire region of the world.
The war set LBJ and Dr. King on a collision course. Even King’s closest advisors tried to dissuade him from publicly condemning it and serious schisms began to develop within the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dr. King adamantly refused to recognize militarism and racism as separate entities. They were, he insisted, inextricably bound. (Statistics proved him right. African Americans comprised 11 percent of the population in 1965, but they accounted for one in every four deaths of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam.)
Dr. King, aware of LBJ’s considerable powers of persuasion, refused to even discuss softening his opposition to the war with Johnson. He became more and more isolated from his own movement, experiencing moments of deep personal despair, and an ebbing of the hope that had previously sustained him. Young blacks began to look to Stokley Carmichael and Malcolm X, who espoused a much more aggressive approach to combating racism. King became yesterday’s solution to a problem that wasn’t going away.
The year chronicled in Mr. Smiley’s book began in April, 1967 with King’s impassioned sermon at New York’s Riverside Church against the carnage in Vietnam and it ends on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in April of 1968.
For much of the year, Dr. King was planning a massive march on Washington to bring the issue of poverty to the doorsteps of the people responsible for perpetuating it. He was diverted by pleas to lend his support and prestige to a strike by garbage workers in Memphis. The city commission of this bastion of southern charm and hospitality hadn’t seen any urgent need to make adjustments to its policy of requiring black workers to station themselves inside the drum of collection vehicles, even after two men had been killed when the compression mechanism had been triggered while they were inside. It was fated to be Martin Luther King’s last cause.
If Michael Brown has unknowingly contributed to the cause of eradicating racism in America, it also cost him his life. One has to wonder what Dr. King would have thought about the brutal killing by a white police officer of an unarmed black teenager in a suburb of St. Louis last week. The scenes we have witnessed in Ferguson since the shooting are reminiscent of images from the hellish destruction in the Middle East. Mr. Brown’s death wasn’t just a senseless tragedy and, heaven knows, it could hardly be called and aberration anymore. What should concern us most of all is that it might be a prelude.
Alden Graves is a Banner columnist.