This anniversary of his assassination falls amid the largest anti-gun-violence mobilization that we have seen since he departed
Occasionally, a particular year transcends its function as a temporal marker to become shorthand for all the tumult that occurred within its parameters. 1968, a leap year, brought the Tet Offensive, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the student protests at Columbia University, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the bedlam of the Chicago Democratic Convention, the Black Power salutes at the Olympics, the emergence of George Wallace as an avatar of white-resentment politics, and the triumph of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy. That’s a great deal of history, even adjusting for the extra day in February.
We have not, in the past half century, had a year freighted with such emotional and historical heft, in part because we have not seen the convergence of so many defining issues—war, civil rights, populism, political realignment—in so short a timespan. Yet the singularity of 1968 does not diminish its pertinence to our present turmoil. This week, two events in particular are worth considering in tandem: one a cataclysm, the other a tragically predictive attempt to understand how such cataclysms occur.
On February 29, 1968, the bipartisan National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, which President Lyndon Johnson had established to examine the causes of the racial riots that had punctuated the four previous American summers, released its report. Five weeks later, King was shot dead on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis. Devastating riots broke out in several cities. Washington, D.C., where King had spoken four days earlier, exploded: four days of rioting resulted in thirteen deaths, as more than eight hundred fires burned in the city. Smaller conflagrations across the country were too many to number.
The Warren Report, which Johnson also established, in 1963, telescoped the vast implications of the assassination of John F. Kennedy down to the actions of a single individual. The Kerner Report, by contrast, critically rendered the failings of an array of institutions and social forces that had delivered the country to that moment of racial reckoning, beginning in the Colonial era and continuing through the formation of what were then called ghettos. The report stated, bluntly, that “what white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” Notably, the commission delved into questions that might have seemed ancillary at the time but became matters of enduring concern, such as access to health care and the dearth of African-Americans working in the media, a situation that impacted the skewed way in which the riots were covered. But the report is best remembered for its warning that, barring corrective measures, the nation would continue on its path toward becoming “two societies—one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
King’s assassination, on April 4th, in Memphis, where he had gone to support a sanitation-workers’ strike, and the desolation that followed it, seemed an instant validation of that forecast. In his final speech, delivered the night before he died, King considered his mortality: he knew, he said, that he might not get to the Promised Land. It is often remarked that he seemed to predict his own death, but he was speaking from past experience. When he was a twenty-six-year-old pastor, leading the Montgomery bus boycott, his family’s home was firebombed. At twenty-nine, he suffered a near-fatal stabbing in a Harlem department store. Right up to the instant he stepped out, at the age of thirty-nine, onto the balcony in Memphis, he lived under a pall.
The trauma of his death, resonant today even among those who were not yet born when he was alive, has both mythologized him and obscured the difficulties of his final years. His opposition to the Vietnam War damaged his standing with the Johnson Administration. His campaign for housing and economic redistribution in the North met with ugly resistance. Younger activists criticized him for being more moderate than the times demanded. According to a 1966 Gallup poll, two-thirds of Americans viewed him unfavorably.
King did make a prediction, a year later, in his last book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?,” about a backlash against the movement. It would be “nothing new” but, rather, a “surfacing of old prejudices, hostilities and ambivalences that have always been there.” He did not live to see the most fervid stretches of the Wallace campaign, or the success of Nixon’s law-and-order platform, but neither would have surprised him. He understood both the moment he was in and the many moments that had informed it, as the Kerner Report had chronicled.
Many things that King may never have envisioned—the celebration of his birth as a national holiday, the explosive growth in black political representation, particularly the election of Barack Obama—have come to pass. But King and the authors of the Kerner Report would have recognized the ongoing concerns of poverty, the travails of American cities, and the plague of gun violence. The shooting death of the nation’s foremost proponent of nonviolence helped spur Congress to pass the Gun Control Act of 1968. A more moderate incarnation of the National Rifle Association tolerated a portion of the bill, which curtailed mail-order gun sales, but defeated a proposed national firearms registry. It is either damning irony or inspiring continuity—or, possibly, both—that the fiftieth anniversary of King’s death falls amid the largest antigun-violence mobilization that we have seen since he departed.
The Kerner Commission feared that the United States would become two distinct societies, yet among the most striking aspects of the #NeverAgain movement is its young members’ ability to see a common predicament despite their different backgrounds—to acknowledge what King called the “inescapable web of mutuality.” Speaking at the March for Our Lives, in Washington, D.C., Jaclyn Corin, a student who survived the Parkland shooting, allowed that the incident had received so much attention due to the community’s affluence. “Because of that,” she added, “we share the stage today, and forever, with those who have always stared down the barrel of a gun.” She was then joined by a nine-year-old girl named Yolanda Renee, the granddaughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. ♦
By Jelani Cobb
The Express News