2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. It was one of the opening acts of a series of tragedies that echo eerily today. 1968 proved to be a year of discord, disappointment, distrust and despair. America appeared to be falling apart.
By the time King arrived in Memphis, he had done a whole lot of soul searching. The struggle for equality, and his precarious position within the movement, gave King a cause for pause.
His leadership had been losing legitimacy among allies across the spectrum. Ongoing violence against civil rights workers fueled frustrations over the painful pace of progress.
The Kerner Report confirmed concerns that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” Despite landmark legislation, minorities continued to work “twice as hard to get half as far.” After more than a decade of organizing nonviolent resistance, many black activists were ready to rally around Black Power.
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Meanwhile, critics were wondering about Vietnam. Wasn’t our own nation “using massive doses of violence to solve its problems to bring about the changes it wanted”? This question compelled King to confront war.
“I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
King’s outspoken opposition to Vietnam alienated white liberals within President Johnson’s administration. Atrocities abroad convinced King that war was “a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.”
Racism, materialism and militarism: America was sick. King was tired.
Genuine equality, King claimed, could not be achieved ‘without costing the nation something.’
This was evident when King stepped out onto the balcony of the Lorraine Motel to talk to friends on April 4, 1968. According to historian Allyson Hobbs, before returning to his room, King asked the saxophonist Ben Branch to play “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at the rally that evening. A fatal shot was fired. King was dead. This song would be his last request:
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Looking back, King considered his dream a brief “shining moment” of possibility. However, by 1967 the light had vanished. In an NBC News interview with Sander Vanocur, King confessed his dream had become a nightmare. Admitting his “old optimism” seemed “a little superficial,” King suggested “It didn’t cost the nation anything to get the right to vote” or “integrate public accommodations.” Genuine equality, King claimed, could not be achieved “without costing the nation something.” Reform had failed. America’s promissory note remained in default. Nevertheless, King maintained faith in the future.
Looking forward, perhaps it is time for us to set aside King’s dream and pick up the work where he left off in Memphis the day he died. King came to town to support striking sanitation workers and promote the Poor People’s Campaign, a multiracial effort to pressure Congress to adopt an “Economic Bill of Rights” that would address the material conditions of America’s poor. King realized that “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” It is up to us to do the work.
We still have a chance to come together as a community to pick up the pieces broken by our recent past and present path.
In the closing comments of his final book, King concludes: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now ... This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos or community.”
King’s birthday is a call to action. Unlike other holidays, it is “a day on, not a day off,” a reminder that America remains a work-in-progress. Our shared story is neither inevitable nor eternal. We can’t afford to believe in an imaginary past that never existed (i.e., “Make America Great Again”) or a future bound to happen (i.e., “American Exceptionalism”). Both deprive us of our agency and responsibility. Ultimately, “We The People” will be defined by the arguments we make and the actions we take. Facts matter. Unfortunately, evidence suggests chaos awaits. Fortunately, we still have a chance to come together as a community to pick up the pieces broken by our recent past and present path.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Whatcom Community College is hosting the 20th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights Conference at the Syre Center on Saturday, Jan. 13. This year’s theme is “50 Years of Freedom or 50 Years of Fear? Community or Chaos: Where Do We Go From Here?” The keynote will feature “A Collective Contribution,” a fishbowl conversation featuring women of color from our community.Registration will open at 9 a.m. The program will start at 9:30 a.m. and conclude at 4 p.m. Professional development hours will be available for teachers. More information is available at whatcompjc.org.
Joe Wooding teaches at Options High School and volunteers with the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force. This column was written on behalf of the Task Force and the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center.
City’s MLK celebration
The city of Bellingham will host its annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration at noon on Monday, Jan. 15 at Mount Baker Theatre featuring the Kulshan Chorus. Local author and civil rights activist Clyde Ford will emcee the event.
Speakers are WWU professor Trula Nicholas and County Councilmember Satpal Sidhu. Meghan Yates & the Reverie Machine will be special musical guests.
“This year’s theme, ‘Together Against Hate,’ is an affirmation of radical hospitality and inclusion as we stand against forces that perpetuate injustice,” said City Councilmember Terry Bornemann, who has helped organize the event annually for two decades.