- 03 Apr 18
Fifty years ago today, on 4 April 1968, the great African American civil rights leader Martin Luther King was brutally gunned down in an assassination carried out by a white supremacist. Here, The Whole Hog recalls the work of a truly visionary activist, who has inspired numerous musical tributes, including by Ireland’s own U2.
Who amongst us has not felt goose-bumps, 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 for all. In it, Martin Luther King drew on the Bible and the US Constitution and channelled them with astonishing power. The vast throng that attended the march became at once a church congregation and a portent of the Elect, his gospel music-based 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. And because it rang so irresistibly true.
Of course, sometimes time, and tide, do coincide. Vast 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 resistance in the face of blind prejudice and injustice.
Men who returned from fighting in World War II, and from Korea, found it hard to go back to being called ‘boys’. Women like Rosa Parks decided not to give up her 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 story 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 best remembered – and, of course, for the manner of his death 50 years ago, on April 4th 1968, when he was shot in Memphis by the white supremacist, James Earl Ray.
The assassination of Martin Luther King made an indelible impression on later generations. “Early morning, April four/ Shot rings out in the Memphis sky,” Bono sang on ‘Pride (In The Name of Love)’, on 1984's Unforgettable Fire ablum. “Free at last, they took your life/ They could not take your pride.” And it still resonates as one of the most symbolic crimes in modern history.
It would be remiss not to acknowledge that 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 credo of non-violence, was derided by more radical figures like Malcolm X. But no one can credibly dispute the importance of his organisation, and his leadership, of an increasingly effective Civil Rights movement.
He led the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955; the battle against segregation in Albany, Georgia in 1962; non-violent protests in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963; and he helped to 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 1960s progressed, he broadened the campaign to include opposition to poverty and the American War in Vietnam. It is no wonder that he is so widely revered.
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 on the following day, that dread scenario had come to pass, stunning progressives and egalitarians all over the world.
It comes as quite a shock now, to realise that Martin Luther King was just 39 years of age, when the assassin’s bullet cut him down. Such was his presence, and his influence, that you imagine his life 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; as indeed have those, like U2, Public Enemy, Bobby Womack, Stevie Wonder, Common Feat. Will.i.am and Joan Baez, who have all paid tribute to him in song.
Fifty years on, America is a very different place. Great progress was made towards equality – for a time. An African American president, Barack Obama, was elected in the US in November 2008, an advance that nobody could have foreseen forty years previously.
Yet, those great industrial cities to which African-Americans migrated were themselves 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…
Worse, you might say, would follow. 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 now, 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 to a far greater extent, it is under siege from within, and at the hands of its own, as more and more guns circulate. According to a study by researchers in the University of Alabama, 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.
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 number of African-Americans in prison is grossly, shamefully 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 and return the US to the kind of gerrymandering and segregation that Martin Luther King devoted his life to opposing.
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, where the most recent mass murders of young students took place, 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. Signally.
“Sleep/ Sleep tonight,” Bono sang in ‘MLK’, also from Unforgettable Fire, “And may your dreams/ Be realised.”
The work that Martin Luther King set out to do remains unfinished. There are vast mountains that have be climbed – and mountaintops that have to be reached – if we are to successfully challenge inequality across the world.
In the face of prejudice and rank injustice, then, the fight goes on, as it must. It cannot be any other way.
• The Hog