Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that one day the U.S. would live out its philosophy that all people are created equal. His life was cut short in 1968. At the time of his death, the country was in the midst of the Vietnam War. Violence continued to erupt, with riots in American cities, and Robert Kennedy’s assassination.
Forty years later, racial divisions, violence and class struggles continue. Despite major gains in civil rights, many parts of Dr. King’s dream have yet to be realized. Looking back at that time focuses our attention on today’s challenges.
Tavis discusses taping the shows in Memphis for the 40th anniversary of the King assassination.
In the years leading up to 1968, major civil rights advancements were mixed with destruction and violence.
In 1963, President Kennedy publicly voiced the strongest commitment to civil rights of any 20th century American president. His televised proposal to end segregation was followed just a few hours later by the killing of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. The March on Washington, in August of that year, gave new promise. The next month, the Birmingham church bombing killed four Black girls attending Sunday school.
President Kennedy’s assassination was another shock to the country, and many worried that his death would set the movement back.
Commitment to Civil Rights but Riots Break Out
When Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson took over as president, he proved to be committed to civil rights. He pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and also signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Even so, many urban Black youth were growing impatient. They did not see improvements in poverty and unemployment levels, housing conditions or treatment by police.
In August 1965, when a white police officer pulled over a young Black man in Los Angeles, years of pent-up anger erupted in the Watts riots. Over the next few years, more than 200 riots broke out in Detroit, Newark and other cities.
The riots were a turning point for the nonviolent philosophy that had dominated the movement.
In 1966, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) president, Stokely Carmichael, called for “Black Power!” While the phrase didn’t necessarily call for brute force, it implied a more militant stance. This outraged some of the champions of nonviolence and pushed away many white supporters of civil rights.
During these uprisings at home, President Johnson was sending U.S. troops to fight in Vietnam.
While civil rights supporters were divided about joining forces with the anti-war movement, Dr. King began to speak out about the war: “It would be inconsistent for me to teach and preach nonviolence in this situation and then applaud violence when thousands and thousands of people…are being maimed and mutilated and many killed in this war.”
He also called it unjust that young Black men were in Vietnam fighting for the rights of the South Vietnamese people while the rights of Black people in the United States were being violated.
When Dr. King came out against the Vietnam War, he called racism, poverty and militarism “the triplets of social misery.”
The Poor People’s Campaign
Turning his focus to economic justice, Dr. King started organizing the Poor People’s Campaign to demand jobs, fair wages and education for poor people of all colors.
In March, Dr. King joined striking sanitation workers in a demonstration in Memphis. Participants clashed with police and National Guardsmen. Chaos broke out, leading to arrests, injuries and one Black teenager being killed.
Dr. King: “I may not get there with you.”
On his way back to Memphis for a second demonstration, Dr. King’s plane received a bomb threat. Although he had lived with the threat of murder for many years, his words in Memphis on April 3rd conveyed a particularly somber mood. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land,” he preached, in what would be his last speech.
The next day, April 4th, around 6 P.M., Dr. King was shot and killed on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel. Cities across the country erupted in sorrow and rage.
Robert Kennedy Assassinated
King wasn’t the only leader cut down that year. New York Senator Robert Kennedy was running for president as a champion for civil rights, economic justice and an end to the Vietnam War.
After winning a critical Democratic primary in California in June, Kennedy gave a victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. While walking away from the ballroom, he was shot and killed.
Today, people of color are leaders in politics, business and entertainment. An African American man is a serious contender for president. Rep. John Lewis says, in a spring 2008 essay, “In 1968, just these ideas would have been seen as highly unlikely, even dangerous.”
But other aspects of Dr. King’s dream are far from being fulfilled. As in 1968, the U.S. is fighting an unpopular war. And although there are not widespread uprisings in the country, Rep. Lewis argues that we live in a “culture of violence.”
Racism may not be as obvious as it was in 1968, but Rep. Lewis says, “We are still reckoning with those same symbols of hate, whether through a noose hung on a tree in Jena, La., or on a professor’s door at Columbia University.”
Recent downturns in the economy and widespread foreclosures in the housing market have called attention to the limited access of Blacks and other people of color to quality health care, jobs and education. These inequities underscore how much more civil rights and social justice work there is to do.
But as Dr. King reminds us, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”