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In the general consciousness, the lessons of Martin Luther King seem to have been forgotten, especially today, as the US faces a similar divide to that which he sought to bridge.
In the middle-to-late ’60s, a particularly brutal fad swept across America. It was suddenly en vogue to have the empire’s most progressive icons taken away by the dull symphony of gunfire. We lost Kennedy, we lost his younger brother Robert, and this month in 1968, we lost Dr Martin Luther King.
For a country that suddenly grew old in the long seconds at Dealey Plaza, and with the accompanying baritone note of Walter Kronkite still ringing in the collective ear, this was a holy trinity of morbid curiosity; three verdant, progressive voices; three men of unwavering political belief (and potentially suspect moral code); three men forever defined in the pages of history by tragic acronym. But despite the similarities which bound these men – and indeed the men who stopped them (Messrs Oswald, Sirhan and Ray) – the differences remain.
That is, the difference in our reaction to the actions against them, and how we remember these men today.
Horribly, the death of MLK seems to have been sent to the back of history’s bus. Perhaps it was leapt upon as a metaphor for the end of the reform movement, another shot to its labouring heart. Perhaps it can be attributed to racism. Or perhaps it could be that the dream wasn’t as romantic as the tragic story of the Kennedys, where the King of Camelot was slain, and the noble act of the brother shouldering Lance only led him to be felled by the same spitting beast that had claimed noble Jack. The visceral death of both has launched a thousand book deals, Internet theories, biopics and, in the case of JFK, even a Stephen King-authored miniseries where James Franco goes back in time to stop the shooting but falls in love instead. The death of the Kennedys was not just tragic, it has turned into a national institution, kept by the prophetic truism, “where were you when…?”
Now, none of this is to say that the life of MLK hasn’t been honoured. Martin Luther King Jr Day is a national holiday celebrated every year on the date of his birth, and the grand charitable work performed in honour of his memory would, hopefully, make the man himself smile. But, as for MLK’s legacy in the mind of the regular, he’s been reduced to that of soundbite. And the struggles he faced which gave gravity to his words have slipped into the ether.
The key point is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the legislation that “gave all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theatres, retail stores, and similar establishments”. While Kennedy conceived the bill, and LBJ brought it to term, it was King who brought it to life. While those in power sought to bring the measures eventually through Congress, the efforts of King travelling to the intersections of hate and avarice were what spoke loudest.
The American vista in 1963 was deeply fractured. The long-suppressed, institutionalised divisions of white and black were dragged to the surface. Activism was rife, and the non-violent riposte of Dr King was central to this. And central to the world’s attention were towns in Alabama named Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery. Colloquially labelled by King as “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States”, Birmingham itself was split 60/40 but had no black police officers, firefighters, sales clerks; in fact, black secretaries could not work for white companies.
As a result, black unemployment was two times higher than the white equivalent. The Birmingham marches, which involved protestors “sitting in” in white churches and restaurants, soon turned ugly (which was the point, to grab federal attention), with students facing the dire combination of police Alsatian and fire hose. MLK was arrested in the post-mortem, penning the famous Letter from Birmingham jail. The sentiment of “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” accompanied the visceral images that developed, and the conversation turned back to the issue of colour on an individual, and gubernatorial basis. From that, came the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The march towards equality continued in 1965 with the march from Selma to Montgomery, organised by African-American citizens to exercise their right to vote in the face of palpable segregation. There were a total of three marches, eventually reaching Montgomery, but the most galling, and perhaps most valuable march became known as “Bloody Sunday”, where unarmed protestors met the constabulary (and posse members) on the county line, who met them with tear gas, billy clubs and more home-made implements of hate.
Three days later, the next march was lead by King, albeit with less violent results. Later that evening, Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb was beaten to death by clansmen. The violent ripples from Selma were felt in the corridors of Washington, with LBJ soon thereafter passing the Voting Rights Act through a historic session of joint congress on March 15. A week and a half later, the demonstrators reached Montgomery under the presidential protection of the National Guard. On that final day, 25,000 marched in support through the unfeeling
It’s not to say that King was solely responsible for this change. That responsibility stands with those he marched with, those who were felled by fire hose or legislation, bludgeoned by the cold limbs of the protectors, and those who could not march, but did so in spirit.
What MLK is responsible for, is giving a platform to the angry, downtrodden voices, and indeed for the changing of minds; those he rescued from the fence, or from the intergenerational teachings of Americans that descendants of slaves were still slaves. While the Kennedys fought for change, and through politicking and circumstance were denied the opportunity to meet it, the incomparable Dr King saw that change through, and for that, he stands alone. While the change he enacted cost him his life, he will live on; the lessons and the tribulations he taught and faced, open to those on the first steps of the journey he took, when the powers that be make the same mistakes, not out of logic but out of lobotomised prejudice.
He famously spoke of a dream, one which remains unfulfilled. The shades of familiarity are easy to see in a modern-day America which you could argue has not healed but has fractured into multiple divisions in society. But in moving forward, hopefully we can do so by looking back, and in the words of Dr King, to see that all men are indeed created equal.