Yes, you can kill the dreamer. No, you can’t kill the dream. -Quote by the Dalai Lama
As we look back on the Martin Luther King assassination some 40 odd years ago, it is ironic that this event embroiled the nation in the same sort of unbridled violence that the civil rights martyr sought to avoid in his lifetime. The charisma this Baptist minister radiated was a primary factor for the dread he created within conservative and law enforcement community, and motivated the extensive wiretapping program instigated by J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. It also ignited some of the worst civil unrest witnessed in this country. America had experienced racially motivated riots, notably in Detroit and Los Angeles’ Watts residential district, but not the almost simultaneous combustion of burning, looting, and pillaging in as many as 100 cities and towns across the map. This unprecedented pandemonium encouraged a new era of conservatism manifested by the political “rebirth” of Richard Milhous Nixon, while King’s loss created a void in the mantle of black leadership, and left it without a hub from which a cohesive organizational basis could emerge.
The Immediate Aftermath
The tone in Memphis was emotionally charged as negotiations between striking sanitation workers and the city government stagnated. Two black employees had been killed in an accident on a garbage truck and 4,000 National Guardsmen had been called up for several weeks in anticipation of civil unrest. After interventions by local clergymen and the NAACP stalled, Martin Luther King was called in and executed preliminary marches and sit-ins before leaving for other commitments. As tensions continued to escalate, King called off a planned trip to Africa and returned to Memphis where he gave his landmark “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3rd.
Right before the April 4th shooting, King was standing against the second floor railing in front of room 306 as he waited to be driven to the Rev. Billy Kyles’ home for an evening dinner. Kyles stood next to King as their associate Ralph Abernathy stepped back into the room to apply some after shave cologne. King’s security detail consisted of only two Memphis police officers who were reportedly at an observation post in a fire station overlooking the motel, although numerous surveillance teams from a variety of organizations including FBI teams, US Army intelligence, various and sundry undercover municipal police, and allegedly a Special Forces contingent were in the area specifically to keep tabs on the civil rights leader. Directly below them in the parking lot were other members the entourage including Andrew Young.
Immediately after King was shot at 6 PM, he was transported to St. Joseph’s Hospital where they determined that his injuries included a severed spinal cord. As the emergency room staff worked feverishly, the Reverends Ralph Abernathy and Bernard Lee who had accompanied the ambulance, waited anxiously outside. Just over an hour later, at 7:05 PM, Dr. King was declared dead.
Meanwhile back at the Lorraine Motel, the crime scene had taken on a surreal atmosphere. Youthful aide Jesse Jackson then just 27, famously intentionally or unintentionally got his shirt stained with the slain leader’s blood, and then wore the garment for sometime afterwards. In his 1996 biography JESSE:
The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson, civil rights journalist and close friend (Jackson presided over his memorial service) Marshall Frady included a recollection by Andrew Young in which Jackson placed both hands in the bloody pool before smearing his shirt with the crimson mess. He reportedly wore this attire as he hired a public relations agent en route to address Chicago’s City Council, and in a guest appearance on the Today Show. Others present seemed to regard the spent bodily fluid as a religious sacrament of sorts, with Abernathy and others scooping up the remnants from the floor of the balcony. Apparently this was allowed with no thought of preserving the crime scene, but criminal forensics was in a decidedly more primitive state then, before the niceties of blood stain pattern analysis, DNA collection and the like.
Life magazine staff photographer Henry Groskinsky inadvertently stumbled onto the assignment of a lifetime when he was called away from a shooting in Alabama to document the activity as the King contingent solemnly went through the motions of dealing with this ghastly event. Inexplicably, until recently the photos were never published.
Further east, President Lyndon Johnson had just arrived at the White House preoccupied with the pending North Vietnam peace talks to be held in Paris, when he was informed of the shooting. Johnson had been scheduled to fly west to Hawaii on Air Force One for a briefing with the Vietnam Commander, William Westmoreland, but this was shelved as plans were made to address the nation.
As news of King’s death spread across the country, it ignited unrest in scores of black neighborhoods. Places like Pittsburgh, Pa. experienced relatively mild violence compared to Chicago and Washington, D.C., but traditionally African American enclaves like the Hill District and Homewood still suffered an estimated $ 1 million in damages. Cities such as Baltimore, Kansas City, Louisville, and Miami were subjected to equal if not more property damage.
Prominent figures such as Soul Icon James Brown attempted to sooth volatile emotions by reaching out to the public through free concerts like the one depicted in the 2007 bio pic “Talk to Me,” with Washington D.C. disc jockey “Petey” Greene, but areas such as Columbia Heights and the “U” Street Corridor in the nation’s capitol were so devastated that they took decades to recover after those days of rage in April 1968.
The situation was made all the more poignant by the fact that President Johnson could see smoke from the burning building from his vantage point in the White House.
Realizing the sensitivity of the situation, the day after the shooting (April 5) Johnson deployed federal troops into Memphis to reinforce the National Guardsmen already in place, and instructed Undersecretary of Labor James Reynolds to take charge of mediation to settle the sanitation worker’s strike that brought King to the city in the first place. He also called for a national day of morning.
Increasingly overwhelmed by the dramatic social upheaval raking the country not to mention the stress of managing an increasingly unpopular war and dissention within his own political party, Johnson relieved himself of an enormous burden when he famously said “…I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President,” on March 31st, well before the assassination. With the weight of re-election no longer hanging over his head, he felt free to pursue legislation to address the nation’s domestic inequalities and then, after King’s death, his response to the dilemma confronting him.
One of the upstarts to emerge from the Democratic Party to challenge him for the nomination was Senator Robert Kennedy, sibling of his predecessor and heir to the dynasty that over shadowed his own administration. Kennedy, who had been campaigning in the Mid-West when he was informed of King’s shooting, displayed some of the infectious Kennedy charisma before a predominately black Indianapolis crowd when he reminded them that his brother too had been killed by a white man, and neutralized the atmosphere. Hours later, he provided a plane for Coretta Scott King to bring her husband’s body back to Atlanta from Memphis. During this time period, Kennedy was one of the few Caucasian public figures to retain a measure of trust within the black community even as he toured burned out riot areas and walked with the King funeral procession.
Now on top of monitoring conditions in national urban areas, the White Staff made plans for the all important funeral to be held in Atlanta. Mindful of the public’s perception of the President, much of it negative, it was determined that his V.P. Hubert H. Humphrey would attend in his place.
Among the leadership of the organization MLK founded and which he was most closely associated, the SCLC, preparations were drawn up to honor their fallen head and move forward.
Martin use to laugh and joke about dying and use to preach a funeral. When he preached a funeral, he would sound like Richard Pryor cracking on you. You’d laugh, but realize everything he said was true. And you certainly realize that if there is nothing you believe in enough to die for, you really don’t have much to live for anyway…And that death is not an end, but a new beginning. So once you come to that point, then everything else is easy…it just falls right into place. -Andrew Young reminiscing about King in an article with OurWeekly publisher Natalie Cole from Oct. 2006.
The President’s absence at the service on April 9th was more then compensated by the presence of most politicians of national stature regardless of ideological affinity, along with a wide representation of entertainment figures.
The riots served to accelerate the exodus of the white (and some black) middle class families to he suburbs, a phenomenon called “white flight” that had been in existence since the post World War II Era. This divide manifested itself in cultural pursuits as motion pictures, which preyed on the public’s fear and revulsion with the violent urban crime that had become a staple of America’s major cities. Films with these themes include the “Dirty Harry” series, and the popular “Death Wish” sequels starting Charles Bronson that featured a meek upper class professional turned vigilante who turned the tables on the criminal element that threatened his existence.
This backlash of course found its way into the political arena as potential candidates used the fear of crime to implement law and order platforms. Simultaneously, law enforcement and peace officer associations capitalized on these fears to justify their expanding budgets. This trend carried over to the judicial system with Nixon’s highly lauded “War on Drugs” with its appropriation of a new boogie man, the drug dealer, to coerce their suburban constituency into utilizing their votes to safe guard the home front.
“The Negro fought in the war [World War Two], and….he’s not gonna keep taking the s*** we’re dishing out. We’re in a race with time. If we don’t act, we’re gonna have blood in the streets.” -Lyndon Baines Johnson
Webster’s Dictionary defines symbiosis as “…any interdependent or mutually beneficial relationship between two persons, groups, etc.” This description, which has its basis in biology, might be used to describe the interaction between King and then President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson, a native Texan with all the attendant prejudices of the South, nonetheless was committed to the New Frontier legacy passed on by his predecessor John F. Kennedy. Appropriating these initiatives under the mandate of his own Great Society, Johnson was sincere in his commitment towards social reform, possibly motivated by the New Deal policies he’d cut his teeth on as a fledgling politician under the influence of President Franklin Roosevelt.
While some argue that LBJ’s humanitarian overtures were motivated by his interest in the minority vote, Johnson was a pragmatist who realized the urgency of pushing the mandate of equality.
Johnson and King recognized in each other the essential component for realizing each man’s own agendas and goals. King was arguably (with the possible exception of Muhammad Ali) the most famous African American in the world, and with his numerous arrests, protest marches, sit-ins, and a Nobel Prize in his resume, by far the most visible leader of the Civil Rights Movement. While Johnson may have had personal reservations about the minister, King was surely an attractive alternative to the abrasive bombast of firebrand militants like H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael.
40 years after his term ended, historians are now able to access the Johnson administration with detachment. Though his presidency will be forever tainted by the specter of the Vietnam War, Johnson, utilizing the arm twisting tactics (immortalized as “the Treatment”) famously cultivated during his tenure in the House and the Senate, did as much as any elected official to launch the sweeping civil rights programs that defined the 1960s.
The Treatment involved the persuasion of his sometime reluctant colleagues to back a given piece of legislation by way of cajolery, flirtation, flattery, hugs, and occasionally, threats, depending on what technique might work in a given situation. Dwight Eisenhower reportedly kept a staff member positioned to block then Senate Majority Leader Johnson’s path, knowing the latter was not above going behind the Presidential desk to manhandle the Chief Executive’s lapels in an effort to get his way. In 1965, Johnson brought notorious segregationist George Wallace into the Oval Office for one memorable three-hour session.
Just prior to this, Wallace’s state troopers had been televised using billy clubs, bullwhips and tear gas to curtail a voter’s rights march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Dr. King led a second march two days later as the state oppositional. Wallace made clear his intentions as an elected official.
“I’m not going to have a bunch of n*ggers walking along a highway in this state as long as I’m governor.” -from The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics, by Dan T. Carter, Louisiana State University Press, 2000.
Johnson, who towered over Wallace by nearly a foot at 6’4,” sank Wallace into a soft cushioned sofa, and began to use a combination of charm, heavy-handedness and humor to convince the Alabama governor to let the upcoming march to proceed and allow federal troops to provide for their safety. Anxious to get out of this hostile environment, Wallace conceded defeat, remarking:
“Hell, if I’d stayed in there much longer, he’d have had me coming out for civil rights.” -I Wish I’d Been There–Twenty Historians Bring to Life Dramatic Events That Changed America, Edited by Byron Hollinshead, Doubleday ’06
On March 15 on Capitol Hill Johnson introduced legislation that would bar discriminatory voting practices with a speech that said in part:
“Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really It is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” -from Johnson’s Dream, Obama’s Speech, by: Robert A. Caro for The New York Times, Wednesday 27 August 2008.
King, watching the telecast in a private home back in Selma and, a man not given to overt displays of emotion, openly wept in front of his aides.
Galvanized by the images of protesters indiscriminately beaten on their TV screens, thousands of black and white Americans were motivated to join Dr. King in a third march, and the following August, Johnson signed the Voter’s Rights Act, which King declared “a great step forward in removing all of the remaining obstacles to the right to vote.”
These common goals not with standing, LBJ and MLK remained divided on the issue of Vietnam, and this along with the steady stream of provocative reports by Hoover’s minions shadowing King, their rapport remained tenuous. The weight of their responsibility encumbered another common tract upon each man: they had both aged at an accelerated rate. The wear and tear of foreign and domestic policy decisions was visible on Johnson’s visage and posture as he slouched through the White House. King was embattled with moderate whites who judged him ungrateful for the concessions made, militant black nationalists who viewed him as an Uncle Tom, and colleagues within his own organization jealous of his high visibility and position in the media’s limelight. He, possibly in line with his personality, internalized his stress more as the physician conducting his autopsy said that his heart displayed the deterioration of a 60-year man.
Now, with King gone, America seemed on the verge of a bloodbath.