It’s been 50 years since an assassin’s bullet struck down Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A man who preached love and nonviolence was the victim of violence steeped in hatred. His death sent shockwaves across the nation, raising difficult questions about our country’s willingness to resolve the challenges of racism and economic inequality that he had devoted his life to overcoming. Fifty years later, these questions remain unanswered.
In death, King became more universally revered than he was in life. Before his death, his supporters, black and white, viewed him as a courageous champion of equality leading a much-needed effort to improve the lives of black Americans and fulfill America’s promise. His opponents, active and passive, saw him as a dangerous rabble-rouser, disrupting their lives and encouraging those he led to violence.
Over half a century, he has become a national hero shorn of the reality of the black lives that he championed and of the challenge to white privilege that he raised. Writing in in the L.A. Times, Jason Sokol , a history professor at the University of New Hampshire, observed that for many King has become “a voice for colorblindness, and conveniently forgot about his own confrontational acts of civil disobedience.”
Conservatives even invoked King in their denunciations of the Black Lives Matter movement. Bill O’Reilly charged that “Dr. King would not participate in a Black Lives Matter protest.”…Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney recommended that Black Lives Matter protesters heed King’s shining example: “I think the answer to our problems is exactly what they were for Martin Luther King when he changed the world. Love, peace, education, tolerance of others, Jesus.”
During his life, Dr. King recognized that removing the legal structures that enforced the racial divide was important but not sufficient. He knew that his “dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” required a change in the hearts of white Americans. His death spurred the passage of many of the needed legal changes but, we are now seeing how much of his work remains unfinished.
Sign up for our free newsletter
Subscribe to the NPQ newsletter to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
Dr. King recognized that full equality required more than desegregated schools or full voting rights. A change in the hearts of White America was needed. In “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” published in 1967, he wrote that “white Americans must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change of the status quo….This is a multiracial nation where all groups are dependent on each other.…There is no separate white path to power and fulfillment, short of social disaster, that does not share power with black aspirations for freedom and human dignity.”
Michael Eric Dyson, as he reflected on this anniversary in the New York Times, observed that “America in its present incarnation, with its present leadership, teeters toward an arrogance, isolationism and self-importance that are the portals of moral decline and political self-destruction.” We are living at a time when it is again permissible to ignore the reality of racism and to challenge the need, even the right to ask for racial equality. As Jason Sokol writes:
Now, as then, a segment of white America views all forms of black protest as unacceptable and unpatriotic. There may not be a straight line that runs from Martin Luther King Jr…to Colin Kaepernick…and others who have joined the Black Lives Matter movement. But the white hatred directed at King and these modern-day civil rights protesters some five decades later is remarkably similar.
For too many, blaming the victims of American racism for their hurt has replaced the search for a cure. Without the legal structure of segregation, we can ignore that schools, north and south, are just as segregated as they were before Brown v. Board of Education was issued, if not more. Having “outlawed” redlining, we can ignore the growing residential separation of our communities. We can see the economic inequality of our nation as only a result of personal failure and not the legacy of slavery.
Presciently, Dr. King seemed to understand the moment we have come to. Speaking to the Teamsters and Allied Trade Councils in 1967, he said that reaching full social and economic equality would “not be easy to accomplish…because white America has had cheap victories up to this point. The limited reforms we have won have been at bargain rates for the power structure. There are no expenses involved, no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels and other facilities. Even the more substantial reforms such as voting rights require neither monetary or psychological sacrifice. The real cost lies ahead.”—Martin Levine