By Roger Barnes, Ph.D., Department of Sociology professor and chair
I had just pulled my car up to my friend John’s house at about 8 p.m. on the night of April 4, 1968. I was a junior in high school and John and I had been at an evening band rehearsal. We were talking while the radio played. Suddenly the announcement came – “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.”
We were stunned. But not necessarily surprised.
Anybody who followed King closely knew this was a possibility. King was himself acutely aware that his time might be short. And it was. He was only 39 years old when the bullet from James Earl Ray’s rifle killed him.
Ray had positioned himself neatly for his mission. The boarding house from whose bathroom window Ray fired his shot had an unimpeded view of the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on which King was standing, joking and making dinner plans with associates. There was no chance of him surviving.
In the days following the assassination, America’s cities erupted into violence and conflict. My father, who was in Washington, D.C. on business, called me the night of April 4 with the ominous words that, “As I look out my hotel window, the nation’s capital is on fire.”
Now, more than a half century later, we have a day declared as a federal holiday in King’s memory, a beautiful stone monument of him next to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and countless schools, streets and parks named after him. It seems that King is everywhere—on T-shirts, bumper stickers and coffee mugs. Even Ron Paul and Glenn Beck have glowing comments to make about him.
In death, King is loved by all. In life, however, he was hated by millions.
King was viewed in the 1960s as a traitor, a communist, a trouble-maker and a con man all across America, not just among the white racists of the South. At the time of his death, more than 60 percent of the public had a negative view of Dr. King, according to a Gallup poll. Today, only 4 percent have a negative view. Talk about a comeback! So, what gives? Why was King the subject of so much scorn?
The answer in large measure begins exactly one year before his death, on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York. By early-1967, two things had happened to King. First, he had come to the realization that history had made him not only the leader of the Black Movement in America, but more largely, the leader of a human rights movement in the Western world. Second, he had found his public voice on issues other than race.
At Riverside that night, King waded into poverty, racism, and significantly, the war in Vietnam. “A time comes when silence is betrayal,” King said. He continued, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.”
“If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam,’” he warned. Speaking directly about the Vietnamese, King intoned, “We are called upon to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls enemies. No document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”
The fallout was immediate.
“Dr. King’s Error” read the title of a New York Times editorial. The Washington Post chimed in: “He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people.” Carl Rowan, the best-known black journalist in America, cited a Harris poll in which one in every two blacks thought King was wrong on the war issue. The respected black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, observed that King “does not speak for all Negro America and besides, he is tragically misleading them.”
In short, the reaction to the Riverside speech was overwhelming—Stay in your lane. Don’t mix civil rights with the war. Why alienate the best president (LBJ) blacks have had since Lincoln? Your ego has gotten too big.
The last year of his life was difficult, as Tavis Smiley so eloquently describes in Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Final Year. He crisscrossed the country trying to raise money and generate support for the Poor People’s Campaign. He did his best to keep the Movement united and moving forward. But, to paraphrase King, he found it easier to attack racism in Sunflower County, Mississippi than to integrate the suburbs of Chicago. And then, that fateful night in 1968 arrived.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day arrives now every January. The marches go forth. The speeches will be made. But we will do better to remember the real King rather than the simplified, whitewashed version so often presented. Remember him for who he was: a flawed and honorable human. Remember him as a law breaker, a defender of human rights who was arrested more than 30 times for doing the right thing. Remember him as the one who warned against the triple evils of racism, poverty and war. Remember him as the one who said: “… there’re times when you must take a stand that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but you must do it because it is right.”
Dr. Barnes is professor of sociology and chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of the Incarnate Word.