This Wednesday, we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights leader's assassination. Disenchantment and introspection are on the agenda.
“I was 8, living in New York. I remember people crying on my street, standing in front of TV stores watching and listening, unable to believe.”*
“I remember like it was yesterday. I thought the world had gone mad and that things could not get any worse.”*
That trauma still appears in the thousands of testimonies published on American social networks these days. Hotels in Memphis are packed, live coverage after live coverage is broadcast on major TV networks, several celebrities including the Rev. Jesse Jackson will attend the celebrations, and the tocsin will ring at 6:01 p.m., the time of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Thirty-nine shots will be sounded for the 39 years of his life, ended by a gunshot in that Memphis hotel where the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and preacher had come to support striking sanitation workers who were paid $1 an hour. When America remembers, it is grand.
Connections are made to Robert Kennedy, the former U.S. president’s brother who was also assassinated a few weeks later. They were apostles of change, of a revolution – we are in 1968, after all.
And yet. “People forget, but by the time he was murdered in Memphis, MLK was one of the most unpopular people in the country," recalls writer Tony Norman in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. "The white, liberal, high society regretted his criticism of capitalism, which was as ferocious as his criticism of racism. Black civil rights leaders criticized his opposition to the Vietnam War at a time when the Army was one of the most racially egalitarian institutions in the country. Younger black activists considered him an “Uncle Tom” and sided with the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam instead (both radical organizations).
White Americans, persuaded as to the legitimacy of segregation, accused him of always trying to turn the country against white supremacy. Lastly, the optimistic rhetoric of his “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington was largely booed in 1968 and was considered utopian even by his allies. His death changed everything, provoking an intense and immediate amnesia, as evidenced by the way both Republicans and Democrats claim the name of the Nobel Peace Prize winner on Twitter.**
Resurrecting the past is done through the lens of the present, and what we remember from yesterday is stamped by today. “Less parades and eulogies, more penance and reckoning, that's what's more appropriate," according to a Catholic priest interviewed by the Dallas News, because King’s assassination is not yet part of history. "The struggle, the violence ... are all in substance as they were in 1968. What killed King still kills. ... Five decades on, the dream is still deferred..." the priest says.
“I came to see King’s death ... as a tipping point in our nation’s history, dooming any last hopes for a multiracial America. In the end, King’s assassination exposed a virulent white racism,” wrote a columnist for The Washington Post.
The Association for Justice via Journalism*** went to interview residents of a poor Memphis neighborhood located a few blocks from where the celebrations will take place. “To them, King’s message was lost, both in speeches and in facts,” the association reported.*
Nothing's changed, and they don’t think they will see any change in their lifetime. Unsanitary housing, no jobs, no money, no recreation parks for children — “Young people don’t understand what King’s struggle was all about because nobody teaches them.”* Here residents don’t plan to attend the celebrations.
Afro.com, an African-American website, writes: “Some 50 years after King’s death, the vast majority of Black America finds itself in a peculiar and precarious space; enduring the volatile reign of the most unqualified, lazy, larcenous, lying, willfully ignorant and thereforr dangerous man ever to occupy the White House." Trump openly defends a white nationalist agenda. He is "the most openly anti-black U.S. President since Woodrow Wilson,” according to the site. The “mountaintop” of the April 3, 1968 speech in Memphis is still very far off.
*Editor's Note: While accurately translated, the accuracy of these quotations, and in certain instances the source, could not be verified.
**Translator's Note: The author appears to have paraphrased this paragraph from an editorial in the Post Gazette written by Tony Norman dated April 2, 2018.
***Editor's Note: The Association for Justice Via Journalism may refer to the organization MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nongovernmental reporting project on economic justice in Memphis.