Posted April 4, 2008 – looking back 40 years to the tragic events of April 4, 1968
Many of the dramatic events of the year 1968 are still clear in my mind this morning. Living in that time, being a young journalist and then corporate manager active in many of the events that took place, and then looking back over the years since I always considered 1968 to be a clear and dramatic dividing line for so much of what happened before and after in America. 1968 was a year of cultural, political and societal revolution for our nation and people.
A spate of books have recently been published on ’68, including a new best-seller by Tom Brokaw, and even a movie book outlining five important 1968 movies that clearly demonstrated the cleavage between Old Hollywood and New Movies, as the important arbiter and shaper of American Culture (moving pictures) went to the revolution’s frontlines. (“Pictures at a Revolution,” by Mark Harris.)
The 1960s were the decade of the [escalation of] the Viet Nam War, and rising protests against the war; the peak years of the Cold War; the all-too-brief Age of Camelot (President John Kennedy’s time in the White House); of rising protests against institutionalized racism; of spreading Civil Rights Unrest; of Hippies and communes and the Counterculture; of Beatles and British Invasion Music; of Bonnie & Clyde movie genre; of great political leaders being toppled (think: LBJ stepping down), and more.
The great divisions on issues, ideas and ideals between liberal-left and conservative-right movements were more clearly drawn after the 1964 presidential campaign – and the divide continues today, 44 years later, in the current electoral campaign. We have public debate about Red/Blue states; liberal-conservative political leaning; and unfortunately, still too much black-white population division.
There was great civil unrest in America as the first days of 1968 dawned; there had been riots in many American cities from the mid-1960s on, and urban areas went up in flames as angry mobs turned over and burned cars, set fire to rows of store fronts, battled police and National Guard in the streets, and destroyed neighborhoods that even today in some cities remain battle-scarred relics of their former selves. We could say it took 40 years to get Newark, New Jersey to recover (still going on today, under the inspired leadership of Mayor Cory Booker).
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the midst of struggles in many cities over the years of the 1960s trying to quiet things down in his campaigns which were always centered on non-violent resistance. He demanded that Americans and American institutions be accountable for their past actions as well as accountable for the progress (or lack of) in its race relations and treatment of a huge number of people – black Americans, who could trace their roots back on this continent to at least 1619. Now, in 1968, he continued to argue that economic fairness and social justice should be embraced throughout the land.
Dr. King himself was not universally embraced for his peace-making in the white communities — and often not in the black communities, or church pulpits, either. Elsewhere here in this column space we have called attention to his plea from the Birmingham jail cell in April 1963 for help, for understanding and support, and his acknowledgment of the criticism of even fellow African-American clergy. His was often a lonely battle, even when he stood at the head of the march and braved the ugly police response to his campaigns. (Note: it was also in 1968 that the former “Negro” reference became “black,” mostly due to the efforts of black journalists and civic leaders. “African-American” would emerge as a mainstream term later.)
On February 29, 1968 the landmark “Kerner Commission Report” was issued – the formal name was the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders – spelling out the conditions in urban centers that needed to be addressed to prevent repeats of the 1967 riots that swept through cities. We were moving toward two societies, the Commission said, with “Negro majorities” in the cities as whites to moved to suburbs.
By early 1968 Dr. King was growing weary on the campaign trail, being pulled here and there as the civil rights movement expanded and campaigns were popping up in major cities – there he was in Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, even small cities in Mississippi and Alabama. The journeys took him away from his family and home church pulpit to Memphis in spring ’68, to respond to the invitation of the striking sanitation workers demanding better wages, safer working conditions, and recognition of their union.
Dr. King was traveling the country on behalf of the movement and with his colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was upset by the rising violence he saw in the civil rights movement and in the struggle by blacks for their gains. He was criticized and even told his non-violent cause was outmoded and that he was at risk of becoming irrelevant – it was becoming “burn-baby-burn” vs. “learn-baby-learn,” notes Dr. Benjamin Hooks, a SCLC colleague who was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush. This divide in the minority community created even more pressure on Dr. King.
Dr. King attempted peace-making in Memphis. Two black sanitation workers – Echol Cole and Robert Walker — had died in an accident when the [new] compactors on a trash truck they were riding crushed them; there was no death benefit for their families. Two dozen black sewer workers were sent home without pay while their white supervisors stayed on (with pay) when inclement weather interfered with work. More than 1,100 black workers walked off the job and a well-publicized strike began. The city gave no ground. There were violent incidents with serious clashes between police and protestors. Dr. King was called on to mediate and lend his moral support to the workers. He planned to lead a peaceful march in Memphis.
He spoke at a rally and said he had been to the mountaintop – citing the Old Testament story of Moses and the Promised Land. The next generations, Dr. King said would reach that Promised Land, even if he did not. The next evening, tragically, while standing on the Lorraine Hotel balcony preparing for dinner at a colleague’s home, a single bullet struck him down, killing him. Here we are 40 years on, today quietly observing his early death, a longer time since Dr. King’s own time on earth,. We wonder what he might have been able to accomplish in the years since 1968 had he lived. (He was but 39 when murdered – think of all that he accomplished in those so few adult years of his ministry.)
The events of that night are still clear to me. Many Americans were grief-stricken – how could this happen…in America? Why Dr. King? Those questions still hang in the air, don’t they? And other questions come to mind, for me –
What would Dr. King think today of…
…the good news, thanks to his work and the sacrifices of his generation, of so many African-American men and women being graduated since the 1960s from America’s colleges and universities?
…the good news, so many of those graduates making their way into professional and business and social sector and public sector leadership posts? That so many have become bankers and lawyers and doctors and college professors?
…the good news that while the number is still small, black executives are moving to the top of the pyramid in Corporate America, including the brilliant Kenneth Chenault, Chairman – CEO of American Express since 2001?
…and more good news, a man born to an African father is in the running to be president of the United States – Dr. King, isn’t this fantastic progress? (We think of Senator Barack Obama more as a multi-racial candidate, representative in so many ways of the wondrous mixture of peoples who in this crucible of freedom created the “American race.”)
…continuing good news, so many black men and women now sit in the public halls of power, in the US Congress, as governors of states, in state legislatures, in hundreds, yes thousands of local municipal posts?
…but then, what would he think of the bad news, that so many African-American children are being born to single mothers? That so many children have no male parent in the home? That so many black males are in prisons today?
…and so many black families are still mired in poverty? That so many attend “separate and unequal” schools because the public sector hasn’t figured out how to finance “equal” public school education yet?
…and what would his thoughts be if he saw so many minority families being steered over the past five years to, or only had access in their community to, predatory loans, to sub prime mortgages? And what would he think of so many of those black borrowers now being in danger of losing their homes, their access to the American Dream?
…would he applaud the good news that the US military is the finest example in our entire society of blacks and whites and men and women of all ethnic and racial backgrounds serving side-by-side to defend our nation?
…and what would he, the leading critic of the Viet Nam conflict in 1968, think today of tragic conflict in the Middle East, with a war going on with no clear exit strategy and no discernable (predictable) outcome after five years of fighting and hundreds of billions’ of dollars spent? And 4,000 American lives lost – many from minority communities?
We remember that Dr. King was a major opposition leader to another war, the critical issue of his generation, and that he was often the most prominent social and political pariah for his position in opposition to the Southeast Asia war. The white media did not race to take his side on issues – not in the north, and certainly not in the south. Neither did many public officials. In fact, in my experience, more business leadership responded substantively to the call for economic fairness than did other institutions in our society. (My own experience at American Airlines helped to shape my world views for the rest of my career – we recruited more black pilots than all the other airlines combined!)
We don’t know the answers to these hypothetical questions, of course, we can only guess and project our own desired answers. But we do know this: We lost a great leader 40 years ago today, a man who created change for our nation through peaceful, non-violent means. Dr. King pricked the conscience of the nation and made us a better people, and a stronger nation, one that is more inclusive – though still not totally inclusive, of course – and a nation better equipped perhaps than any in the world for dealing with a multi-cultural, globalized economy. We are the greatest multicultural nation on earth – a great asset when we go to the world markets, right?
He was a thought-leader whose wisdom continues to guide us…if we seek such wisdom.
He did not die in vain – his legacy includes the upward bound minority populations of our cities, suburbs and rural areas who are pushing through the gates and doors of opportunities that he opened for future generations. So we pause, 40 years on now, to say “thank you and well done” to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Only 39 years on earth, and so much accomplished…for us as a nation.
As he spoke more openly about the fragility of his earthly life Dr. King asked his friends to keep his eulogy short. Remind the folks that he was “a drum major for peace and justice and righteousness,” following as a Christian preacher the example of his Lord 2,000 years earlier. The final thing to say, he requested, was “Precious Lord, take my hand.”
In his great book (“Canaan’s Edge”) on Dr. King’s last years, author Taylor Branch writes a fitting ending to this commentary:
“Time on the balcony had turned lethal, which left hanging in the last words fixed on a gospel song of refuge. King stood still for once and his sojourn on earth went blank.”
Let us on this day of remembrance 40 years on not let the pages of his crusade for economic fairness and social justice “go blank.”
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For more information:
Here’s the BBC News take on today’s remembrance:
To read more about the Memphis strike – check The National Archives Web
And you can read more about Dr. King and his Nobel Prize at:
The Wikepedia entry is very good: