Every November 22 we commemorate the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That date is engrained in U.S. history and many people who were alive then recall vividly where they were when the news from Dallas broke. We remember that dreadful date but hardly anyone realizes that JFK’s birthday was May 29.
Also heartbreaking was the assassination of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which occurred in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Yet the date with which he is most associated is his birthday, January 15. A national holiday was established on the third Monday of each January near that date to honor the fallen civil rights hero.We recently passed the 46th anniversary of Dr. King’s death. I chose April 4—the other MLK day—to reflect upon Dr. King’s contributions and what might have been had his young life not been cut short by an assassin’s bullet. On that horrific day, the civil rights movement following Dr. King’s doctrine of nonviolence experienced a stunning blow.
Whereas the U.S. Constitution provides continuity and stability when a president cannot complete his term, that is not the case when a larger-than-life, charismatic but unelected leader is struck down. To be clear, other civil rights leaders have attempted to fill Dr. King’s shoes and worked extremely hard in an effort to end legalized segregation and discrimination and attain justice for African-Americans. Rep. John Lewis from the MLK era, as an example, continues the fight even today. However, there has been nobody I know who has been compared to Dr. King or is perceived to be his equal. Many have succeeded him; nobody replaced him.Arguably the one white leader who had been revered by blacks during the 1960s was Robert F. Kennedy, the younger brother of the assassinated president. He, too, would be slain two months later. Kennedy, a senator at the time and running for president during the 1968 primary campaign, disclosed the assassination of MLK that evening in what many have hailed as the “greatest speech ever” at a scheduled stop in Indianapolis. News didn’t travel as fast in those days—unlike the instantaneous transmission of news and photos today—and the crowd groaned and wept at the announcement of the killing that occurred hours earlier.
Kennedy implored love and compassion and decried hatred knowing that the audience would be filled with anger especially since the accused assassin was a white man. It was to no avail.Though Indianapolis remained calm, riots broke out in over 100 cities, including Baltimore, reflecting the anger of a populace who lost their spiritual, if not political, leader. A few years earlier, such riots took place in Detroit, Harlem and Watts, but they were a result, for the most part, of police actions that were hostile to inner city blacks.
This time the boiling point was reached with the murder of MLK as a substantial segment of Americans saw a hopeless future and acted out accordingly. Emotions were already ramped up because of the divisive war in Vietnam, which reached its peak in 1968. Unfortunately, the riots produced a white backlash, spawning a “law and order” dogma by conservatives, which impeded progress.Nonetheless, there have been substantial gains in the quest for civil rights since the day we lost MLK. Even before then, largely because of the efforts of Dr. King, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964, and we have recently commemorated the 50th anniversary of this landmark legislation.
But just as the elimination of homophobia has been a slow slog through history, so has the efforts to end racism. Income inequality persists for African-Americans as does a sizable achievement and employment gap. Schools in black areas are sub-standard and poorly funded. Many families continue to be torn apart because of poverty, drugs, a lack of health care and other influences. Crime remains a problem in most of the country’s inner cities.Hope emerged, however, with the election of Barack Obama as president. Some saw this as the end of racism as the election of the first African-American to the White House was an unimaginable achievement. People celebrated and imagined how Martin Luther King, Jr. would have reacted to this historic milestone. But the temptation to see this as a new beginning was tempered by the fact that it brought back the old demons of racism and another backlash.
Ugly racist signs, t-shirts and epithets were common during the 2008 campaign. Efforts to block President Obama on his legislative initiatives are believed to be, in part, race motivated. The Affordable Care Act or Obamacare was opposed by those who saw this as a way to increase premiums on white people so that blacks can get health insurance. Even the attempt to allow the country to default on its debts was inspired by hatred towards the president to make him look bad. And then there was the Trayvon Martin fiasco, which ignited more racist commentary in what we call the “new media.” Add to that the voter suppression efforts. It goes on and on.Instead of moving forward, we have taken a step back. Dr. King would not be smiling on us now despite the election of President Obama. Instead, he would be shedding a tear—maybe a lot of tears.
In recalling MLK’s murder on that muggy April 4 afternoon at the Lorraine Motel, it’s important to note how progress can be thwarted so easily and how fragile racial equality is. We should consider April 4 as another Martin Luther King Day, even unofficially, to reflect upon what could have been and how far we still need to go.Following renovations, the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel re-opened on April 5 to remind everybody of the blood, sweat and tears shed during this movement and that the struggle is far from over.
As Dr. King said, “No one really knows why they are alive until they know what they’d die for.”