April 4th marked the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Most of a certain age—and I count myself among them—remember where we were, what we were doing and how we reacted in the moment, on the day the news broke Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was dead.
“There was anger, there was sadness, there was, ‘What’s going to happen now?” said Melvin Allen who was a college student when King was assassinated in 1968.
Over the 54 years since King’s untimely death there continues to be discussions and disagreements over how the movement for civil rights, economic justice and all issues related to equity for Blacks and the poor, might have evolved differently had he lived.
There are those who argue we would have made much more progress in these areas were King gifted with longevity. I would like to believe that optimistic perspective, but I am not so sure.
There are those who believe his assassination magnified his work and his martyrdom elevated the message of his life beyond what might have transpired had he lived using as a foundation for this argument how the FBI and others would have continued their relentless efforts to mar his reputation and we know that water can wear away stone. Also, during the last months of King’s life there were struggles on multiple fronts
Some of his contemporaries believed as long as King spoke about Black issues, his message was tolerable but when he expanded the movement more broadly to encompass poor people of all races, when he ventured into commentary against the War in Vietnam, it was considered a bridge too far. There were also many in the Black community who felt his message of love and turning the other cheek had grown stale and it was time for more revolutionary action. We sometimes forget that at the moment of his death King was being criticized by many.
The dream lives
From a different point of view there are those who cling to the adage, “You can kill the man, but you can’t kill the dream.” Well, maybe you cannot kill a dream, but assassinating its leader goes a long way toward fostering a sense of despair, a sense of rage, a sense of hopelessness, especially when a dynamic leader is cut down and there is no alignment around who is best to pick up the mantle and move forward with renewed purpose and direction. Regarding the loss of King, someone once described his murder as shattering any hope that this nation, “could have redemption without violence.”
Yet, despite all that this nation has experienced in the 54 years since his death, especially during the previous six years, in more ways than not, the hope for nonviolent redemption of America—springs eternal.
There are many who believe his followers were not meant to know what a long life might have yielded regarding King because despite his nonviolent approach, he was killed, (please pardon my use of this cliché), because the ‘tongue is mightier than the sword.’ King used the power of his voice, his intellect, and his god, to rally the moral consciousness of America and many in the world to the causes of justice, righteousness, and agape love. Racists were powerless against his voice. The nation’s military industrial complex was powerless against his words of truth and his weapon of nonviolence.
King understood this in ways beyond the comprehension of many and challenged the edifice of white supremacy without apology in some ways he rose above his fear of death and placed his trust in eternal life—we know this because he told us. And, knowing full well the nature and willingness of those aligned against him and their willingness to silence his dissent “by any means necessary,” King persevered.
The tactics used against King have not changed in 54 years and even though no leader has taken King’s mantle, Black leaders have earned national prominence and we witness example after example of them—regardless of education, qualifications and accomplishments—continuing to be subjected to the ire of the “white supremacy” mindset whenever there is even the slightest hint of pigmentation in their skin.
We are living through the backlash of the Barack Obama presidency, bearing witness to the demonization of Vice President Kamala Harris, the excoriation of the brilliant journalist, now professor, Nikole Hannah-Jones, for having the audacity to create the 1619 Project, and just recently we just watched with abject disgust and horror, the antics of white supremacy on full display during the Judiciary Committee Hearings in the U.S. Senate related to Supreme Court nominee, the Honorable Ketanji Brown Jackson.
I often wonder what makes these people so angry and so vile? Is it because as Maya Angelou said no matter what weapons of white supremacy, institutional racism, and injustice are levied against Black people by the racists of this nation—We Rise?
It is difficult to know what we can never know regarding what America might have been had King lived. It is difficult to know if there might have been sustained focus on issues of injustice different from the “fits and starts” we’ve experienced since his death. I am tempted to say it would probably not be much different from today. It is possible but not probable that had he lived a long life the ongoing dialogue for justice might have pressed on without interruption but that seems unlikely.
It seems however people’s attention span on issues tied to injustice, has grown shorter. Indeed, the world’s focus switches from one issue to the next based on the latest social media trends that seem to shift as quickly as TikTok videos sum up full length movies in a fraction of time.
What if King had been given the grace of a long life like other prominent movement leaders like Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela? To me it is highly probable that King too would have sustained his place as a global sage on issues of human and civil rights.
I sometimes wonder whether graduating students might have felt a special call to action had King delivered the commencement address at an historically Black college as the world entered the 21st century, how he might have inspired and rallied the world around issues related to a changing climate, or how he might have spoken out against human trafficking, or spoken up for women’s rights, or stood with Black Lives Matter protesters in the summer of 2020, or what it would have meant to Black Americans and Barack Obama had King been there to embrace him when he was sworn in as the nation’s first Black president, or how we might have been buoyed by his words of spiritual comfort and solace to Black Americans as they suffered and died in unwarranted numbers due to the failures of institutional racism he fought so hard to change so long ago.
These are all things we can only imagine . . . but never know.
Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real.