His Work Was Just Beginning: Looking Back at the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

April 4th marks the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.

The news that day was greeted with shock, horror, and led to a spate of angry and violent demonstrations in cities where African Americans felt the assassination was an attack not only on their hopes for equality, but on them as Americans and as humans.

In the 50 years since King’s death, his legacy has grown immensely around the work he did in the late 1950s and early 1960s to transform the legal landscape in a way that made discrimination more difficult, and imbued the nation’s character with at least the glint of the idea that racial equality is an admirable goal.

But less has been made - far less, in fact - of the work King was doing when he was killed.

He was in Memphis that week in 1968 to lock arms with sanitation workers who were protesting low wages and awful, dangerous working conditions.

And he had begun his “Poor Peoples’ Campaign,” which had expanded his work to a multi-racial, economically based movement.

The controversy around King, by 1968, was really about how far he might push the notion of equality, and whether, in particular, the white moderates who cheered the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act would join the strong pushback against King’s demands for economic justice.

The Atlantic

Vann R. Newkirk II, staff writer at The Atlantic, writes in his piece titled “The Whitewashing of King’s Assassination” or “How to Kill a Revolution”:

As sure as Jesus’s words proved prescient about the adoption of Christianity in the empire that killed him, so too the modern-day legend of King writes itself in real time. In the official story told to children, King’s assassination is the transformational tragedy in a victorious struggle to overcome. But in the true accounting, his assassination was one of a host of reactionary assaults by a country against a revolution. And those assaults were astonishingly successful…

Newkirk joins Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson to discuss King’s legacy and the impact of his assassination. He says towards the end of his life, King expanded his work, drawing ire even from some of those who previously supported him. 

(King) becomes a much more nuanced economic and sociological thinker, and that actually drives lots of people away from him,” he says.

Again, Newkirk writes in The Atlantic:

King spoke of a “white backlash”—a term he helped popularize—to his movement. But in retrospect, the strength of the reaction he predicted and endured often receives short shrift. The support of white moderates who recoiled at images of Negro children sprayed by hoses and attacked by dogs was instrumental in passing laws that ended legal segregation and protected voting rights. But by 1966, it had become clear that many of these whites chafed against further activism and greater demands for equality. They viewed the Voting Rights Act as a final concession; King saw it as a start.”

Newkirk also says that King’s assassination was a bigger blow to the movement than just losing an icon. The loss of Martin Luther King Jr. hurt the ability to have whites participate in meaningful conversation about discrimination.

People know if they kill the one man, they break the will of white people to listen to black folk, and of black folks to have hope that non-violent radical movement can effect change.”

Click on the audio player above to hear the full conversation. 

Image credit: U.S. Department of State

About the Author

Detroit Today

Dynamic and diverse voices. News, politics, community and the issues that define our region. Hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stephen Henderson, Detroit Today brings you fresh and perceptive views weekdays at 9 am and 7 pm.

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