- 19 Apr 18
Fifty years on from his assassination, Martin Luther King’s legacy resonates more powerfully than ever in American political life.
Who amongst us has not felt goosebumps listening to Martin Luther King’s electrifying “I have a dream” speech? That speech was delivered to a quarter-of-a-million people at the end of the March to Washington on August 28 1963. Its central passage was inspired, it is said, by the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouting at King to “tell them about the dream”. A masterpiece of public oratory, it evokes a millennial vision of equality, justice and peace, of honour, validation and redemption. He drew on the Bible and the US Constitution, his gospel music call and response incantation building intensity and fervour to a heart-bursting, spine-tingling climax. Preacher, prophet, visionary, leader, we know him so well because that speech sang.
Of course, sometimes time and tide just coincide. Great movements of population in the US after emancipation brought African Americans to the great industrial cities, places where the old order’s hold was less secure and where education, slowly but surely, sparked an awareness of rights and a growing stubbornness in the face of prejudice and injustice. Men who returned from fighting in World War II and Korea found it hard to go back to being called boys. Women like Rosa Parks decided not to give up the seat on the bus. Protest movements and songs reignited the militancy of the dustbowl refugees, but for a new generation and a new crusade.
The outlines of Martin Luther King’s history are well rehearsed. He was, by all accounts, a precociously intelligent youth, entering higher education at 15 years of age. Although at first a reluctant recruit to religious ministry, having concluded that the church offered the most assuring way to answer “an inner urge to serve humanity”, he became a minister in the Baptist Church. But it is for his central role in the civil rights movement that he is remembered and, of course, for the manner of his death 50 years ago, shot in Memphis by white supremacist James Earl Ray.
MLK was not unopposed in African-American circles. His espousal of non-violence and civil disobedience, rooted in his Baptist Christian beliefs and modelled on Mahatma Ghandi’s non-violence, was derided by more radical figures like Malcolm X. But none can dispute the importance of his organisation and leadership of an increasingly effective movement.
He led the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, and the battle against segregation in Albany, Georgia in 1962. In 1963 he led non-violent protests in Birmingham Alabama and helped organise that famous March on Washington. In October 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through non-violent resistance. As the ’60s progressed, he broadened the campaign to include opposition to poverty and the American War in Vietnam.
In 1968, he was working towards an occupation of Washington DC to be called the Poor People’s Campaign. At the end of March he visited Memphis, Tennessee in support of the black sanitary public works employees. On April 3, he made a speech in which he referred to the possibility of assassination. Just after 6pm the next day, that dread scenario had come to pass.
It comes as quite a shock to realise that Martin Luther King was only 39 when the assassin’s bullet cut him down. Such was his influence and presence that his life seemed to have been much longer. Of course, videos and voice recordings and the very power of his words and speech have kept both his spirit and memory alive.
Fifty years on, America is a very different place. Great progress was made towards equality, for a time. An African American president was elected in the US in November 2008, an advance that nobody could have foreseen 40 years previously.
Yet those great industrial cities to which African Americans migrated were decimated as the industrial landscape changed. In, for example, Detroit, the Motown of music history, the rural poor of earlier generations became the urban poor of modern times.
And who could have foreseen that the utopian dreams and promises of the internet and early social media would degenerate so quickly into what we find before us, a malign dystopia where monsters we thought long dead and buried have been exhumed and rehabilitated, even to the inner sanctums of the White House?
We look around and find that most of MLK’s concerns are still immediate, urgent. White supremacists are newly emboldened in the US, legitimised by Donald Trump and his government. These racists claim that the US is under siege from outside, but it is much more the case that it’s under siege from within, and by its own as more and more guns circulate. The US has 4.4% of the world’s population but 42% of its guns, and over 30% of the world’s mass shooters are American, according to a study by researchers in the University of Alabama.
The social disparity between even relatively affluent white Americans and their black counterparts is marked, for example in illness, under-employment and earlier death. The numbers of African Americans in prison are grossly disproportionate. The Black Lives Matter movement has emerged in response to the seemingly random way in which black Americans can be gunned down, some even say executed, by the police. And poverty is as live an issue now as it was in King’s time.
Indeed, as the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination is marked, efforts are under way in the US to restrict voting rights by changing ID requirements or voting rules in an attempt to disenfranchise minorities and immigrants.
But of course, we should not despair. Good people in the US are fighting back. Black Lives Matter is one example and the #NeverAgain movement initiated by the students of Parkland school is another.
The intention of the assassin was to kill Martin Luther King and in this he was successful. But if he, and those who backed him, intended that his voice be stilled and the fire he lit be doused, they failed.
The work that King set out to do is still unfinished. Furthermore, the task is found across the world. In the face of prejudice and rank injustice, the fight goes on. And on.