King’s inspiration has outlasted his detractors
On Wednesday morning I was in Memphis, and I walked over to the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 40 years ago Friday. I toured the National Civil Rights Museum and then went up to the room by the balcony where King was shot.
The Rev. Billy Kyles happened to be filming a documentary with his daughter Dwania as I arrived, going through a second-by-second account of the last moments of King’s life. The Rev. Kyles was with King when he was shot and was due to host him for dinner that evening.
You can watch Dwania’s documentary someday to hear his description of that afternoon, but I was curious for him to describe King’s mood during the final hour of his life. When you read the accounts of his final months, you get a sense of building pressure, of a rising atmosphere of menace and doom.
By 1968, King was under harsh assault not only from white racists but from the black power movement, which regarded his tactics as outdated and anodyne. His effort to stage a Poor People’s Campaign in Washington was in disarray. He was often sleepless and depressed.
He came to Memphis because of a sanitation workers’ strike. The garbage men were paid so little that they could work full time and still qualify for welfare. When two workers were killed because of unsafe trucks, the rest struck.
As Michael Honey notes in his compelling though crusading history, "Going Down Jericho Road," the mayor of Memphis was unbending. The strike dragged on and tensions rose. The workers staged a march on Feb. 23, 1968, and the police responded with mace and clubs. The second rally, on March 28, was a microcosm of America at that moment. King stood at the head of the march, looking dazed. Around him in the front were the sanitation workers, with their concrete demands. But in the back of the crowd there were more radical and anarchic elements.
The looting and the rioting began almost immediately. King was whisked away. Hundreds were bloodied. One was killed. The authorities were driven both by the desire to restore order and by their own racist demons.
That march was a pivot. In both the white and black communities, the forces of order and reform vied with the forces of hatred and anarchy. The latter had the upper hand.
The atmosphere deteriorated. The National Guard was sent in. There were weapons everywhere. This week I ran into Bobby Martin, whose father was a sanitation worker during the period. "I saw fear on my hero’s face," Martin recalled.
Everybody sensed that this was heading toward disaster. King expressed premonitions of his murder in the "Mountaintop" speech. City officials worried about his assassination to reporters. The KKK stayed out of Memphis so it wouldn’t get blamed if he was killed.
And yet, the Rev. Kyles noted, "he preached himself through the fear of death." The next day, in the privacy of the hotel room, he was happy and domestic. He had a brief pillow fight. He talked about soul food and what tie to wear. It was just three reverends sitting around, Kyles remembered, talking "preacher talk."
Then King walked out onto the balcony and the forces that were swirling outside intervened. James Earl Ray’s bullet sliced the knot of his tie. Riots commenced, and in the ensuing years, crime rates skyrocketed, cities decayed and the social fabric was torn. Dreams of economic opportunity and racial integration were swallowed up by the antinomian passions and social disorder.
The key tension in King’s life was over how to push relentlessly for change but within an existing moral structure. But by the late-’60s many felt the social structure needed to be torn down. The assassin’s bullet set off a conflagration.
Building the social fabric after the disruption of that period has been the work of the subsequent generations — weaving the invisible web of family, neighborhood and national obligations so that people stay in school, attend to their kids and have an opportunity to rise if they play by the rules.
Progress has been slow. Nearly a third of American high school students don’t graduate (half in the cities). Seventy percent of African-American kids are born out of wedlock. Poverty rates in Memphis have scarcely dropped.
Martin Luther King Jr. at least left behind a model of how to repair the social fabric. He was scholarly, formal, assertive and meticulously self-controlled in public. If Barack Obama’s campaign represents anything, it is the triumph of King’s early-’60s style of activism over the angry and reckless late-’60s style. King was in crisis when he was gunned down. But his inspiration is outlasting his critics.
Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times.