On 4 April 1968, America’s best-known civil rights and peace activist was assassinated in Memphis. Fifty years on, Peter J Ling explores the immediate aftermath of his untimely death and the long-term impact of his life and work
Fifty years ago, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr travelled to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of striking African-American sanitation workers . On 3 April, with a storm raging outside, he delivered a moving speech, loaded with words of hope and encouragement: “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” he declared, “And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
In hindsight, his words appear to foreshadow his imminent fate. Just after 6pm next evening, as he was talking to friends from the balcony outside room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, he was gunned down by an assassin, James Earl Ray, who used a high-velocity rifle fitted with a telescopic sight.
Reactions to his death varied across the globe at the time, and have fluctuated considerably across the half century since – a period of huge and widespread change.
As news of the murder spread, African-American rage erupted in violence in more than 100 cities. Between 4 and 9 April, at least 36 people were killed in these clashes, including 11 in America’s capital. Under-Secretary of Labor James J Reynolds flew from Washington DC to Memphis, with presidential orders to secure a rapid settlement of the sanitation workers’ strike King had been supporting. He later recalled how, looking down on blazing buildings close to Capitol Hill, he thought: it looks like a war zone.
The shock of the assassination reverberated far beyond America’s borders. Pope Paul VI expressed his profound sadness. In a rare tribute to a foreign citizen, the Indian parliament observed a minute’s silence. Across western Europe, the death was linked to the earlier murder of President John F Kennedy in 1963; to those nations, the assassination seemed to underscore America’s general instability.
In Berlin, thousands of mourners marched behind West Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Schutz, to a ceremony in John F Kennedy Platz, renamed three days after JFK’s own assassination. In Germany and elsewhere, King’s murder was viewed in the context of his outspoken opposition to US involvement in Vietnam. During the last year of his life, King had been a leading figure in the anti-war campaign. A Nobel Peace-prize winner, he had even considered going as an emissary to North Vietnam, where his presence might deter the bombing of civilian targets. The scale of protests in Europe’s capitals against US actions demonstrated how King was embraced as a martyr for peace.
Predictably, occurring as it did during the Cold War, the assassination was cited as evidence that, in the words of a headline in Soviet newspaper Isvestia, “United States is a Nation of Violence and Racism”. In East Germany, the government newspaper likened King’s death explicitly to the death of another pacifist Nobel Laureate, Carl von Ossietzky , in 1938 after abuse by the Nazis. In Africa, decolonised nations joined the chorus of anti-American sentiment.
In Ghana, the Accra Daily Graphic denounced America’s so-called “affluent society” as in reality “a fraudulent society – a human jungle wherein the black man is a target for destruction, even extermination”. King had been scheduled to visit war-torn Nigeria later in April, and its officials declared that his murder would “have meaning only if US Negroes achieve equality and human dignity in the shortest possible time and without resorting to a bloody struggle”.
The violent disturbances in American cities prompted many other nations to echo Nigeria’s fear of a bloody struggle. Scandinavian countries expressed the hope that African-Americans would not abandon King’s non-violent stance, and the Lebanese press warned of a “Negro revolt”. Unsurprisingly, coverage of the urban clashes was seized upon by the apartheid regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The Afrikaans newspaper Die Vaderland remarked that King had fallen victim to the “evil racial passions” that he had helped to excite. In Rhodesia, the Salisbury Times preferred to dwell on the urban turmoil, with a front-page picture of looters in a supermarket captioned “SELF-SERVICE under ironic sign”.
On 20 April 1968, the British MP Enoch Powell addressed a local Conservative association over the vexed question of immigration. Towards the beginning of what became known as his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech , Powell alluded to a conversation he had had with a constituent a week or two earlier (in other words, almost immediately after the King assassination and the clashes that followed). A “middle-aged, quite ordinary working man” had told Powell that he was encouraging his three grown-up children to emigrate, because within 20 years “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man” in Britain.
Since he did not regard the man’s fears as fanciful, Powell was determined to break ranks with his party’s position on immigration and race relations, to urge a policy of strict controls and repatriation. Looking back on the incident in his memoirs in 1987, the then Labour home secretary and future prime minister James Callaghan wondered whether Powell ever considered how few signs of black domination were evident in Britain nearly 20 years later.
In the wake of King’s death, the US congress passed a fair housing measure – a move that was intended to calm tensions rather than to acknowledge the justice of his calls for racial equality. The same congress passed an Omnibus Crime Control Act in the summer of 1968 to support a police clampdown on militancy and disorder. During its passage, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia declared that: “One cannot preach non-violence and, at the same time, advocate defiance of the law… For to defy the law is to invite violence, especially in a tense atmosphere”. His fellow senator Strom Thurmond endorsed the sentiment, saying in essence that King had it coming.
Six months after King’s death, the significant impact of his work and death wasn’t clear in the US. In November 1968, most American voters chose either the Republican candidate Richard Nixon or third-party challenger and segregationist champion George Wallace as their preferred presidential candidate. And in that year there was little support for a national holiday in honour of the fallen civil rights leader.
With Nixon’s resignation over his involvement in the Watergate cover-up in 1974, and a growing sense of futility associated with American participation in the Vietnam War, the process of remaking Martin Luther King as an American hero began. Exposure of the scale of official repression by congressional investigators in the mid-1970s fostered suspicions that King may have been a victim not just of the man convicted of his murder, the white racist James Earl Ray, but of a larger, more sinister conspiracy. The US senate’s Church Committee concluded in 1979 that, though Ray was guilty, he had been aided by unknown co-conspirators who, they believed, were not governmental agencies.
Perpetuating the memory
Meanwhile, the King family, particularly his widow, Coretta, strove to perpetuate his memory. By 1980, the main sites associated with King in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia – including his parents’ home and Ebenezer Baptist Church – were designated the Martin Luther King Jr Historical Site, under the management of the National Park Service. Then-president Jimmy Carter, a Georgia native, endorsed growing calls for a national holiday, and musician Stevie Wonder had a hit single with ‘Happy Birthday’ in 1980, released to promote this campaign. In 1982, a petition that had garnered more than six million signatures in support of the holiday was presented to congress.
By this stage, praising a version of King had become part of the conservative rhetorical repertoire. Appointed to the Civil Rights Commission by President Reagan, Clarence Pendleton announced that its goal was to secure “a colour-blind society”, and soon Reagan himself seemed happy to tell the press that his administration wanted “what I think Martin Luther King asked for… a colour-blind society”. Such invocations of ‘colour-blindness’ were usually backed up by references to King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, featuring the hope that one day his children might be judged “not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”.
In this way, King was depicted as an opponent of affirmative action – a policy of positive discrimination in favour of racial and other minorities – which was anathema to most conservatives. Reagan, whose political career had flowered amid a backlash against liberal causes from the mid-1960s onwards, signed the King Day legislation in 1983. However, when questioned about persistent rumours that King had been a communist, he could not resist a reference to the court-sequestered tapes and records that will not be available until 2027. “We’ll have to wait and see,” he smiled.
Securing the King Holiday has proved an ambiguous victory in terms of preserving the assassinated man’s memory: it has often provided an occasion for diluting his radicalism in favour of uncontentious platitudes. Unlike other public holidays, since 1994 King Day has been defined as a day of service to the community, a policy summed up by President Clinton in 1995 when he quoted King’s words: “What are you doing for others?”
Moreover, in Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi it was deemed appropriate to twin the commemoration of King Day on the third Monday in January with the commemoration of Confederate General Robert E Lee. In Virginia, which in August 2017 saw neo-Nazis and other elements of the alt-right clash with counter demonstrators , over the removal of Lee’s statue, some communities had earlier celebrated Confederate heroes on the weekend before King Day.
During the recent debates over Republican efforts to dismantle the ‘Obamacare’ health-insurance scheme, political pundit Jeffrey Lord likened President Donald Trump’s efforts to secure change to those of Martin Luther King. When pressed about the comparison, Lord explained that what Trump was doing was working to create a crisis, because this was an essential prelude to meaningful negotiations. In key respects, this echoed other conservative voices who have urged the right to learn from King’s readiness to combine protest with regular politics. Speaking at an anti-abortion event in 1981, Jerry Falwell (leader of the conservative Christian organisation Moral Majority) declared: “I feel that what King was doing is exactly what we are doing”. The group’s PR director, Cal Thomas added that if they were serious about their cause, they should be willing to go to jail, just like King did. Clearly, King’s now-hallowed status as an American hero makes him an icon that both progressives and conservatives seek to claim.
When Donald Trump denounced African-American NFL players for kneeling during the playing of the national anthem (in protest against police brutality), photos of Martin Luther King kneeling in protest came back into circulation. The inference, of course, was that King would have joined the protesters and defended their actions as part of an American tradition of free speech. In his first speech during the Montgomery Bus Boycott , King had proclaimed the “great glory of American democracy” to be “the right to protest for right”.
A few years ago, I gave a talk on King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech at the University of Nottingham’s campus at Ningbo, south of Shanghai. It surprised me that all of the Chinese students were already very familiar with the speech – until I learned that it was a key text in a widely used English composition textbook. Back in 1963, King and other civil rights protesters had been presented by the Mao regime as evidence that the US imperialist-capitalist order was inherently corrupt and hypocritical in its democratic claims.
The same use of the civil rights movement by Communist authorities was reported to me by veteran dissidents in the former East Germany. They recalled watching the protests on television with a commentary that stressed the evils of American capitalism. What intrigued them, they remembered, were the protest methods themselves; unwittingly, the state agencies were providing them with models for future practice. What is taught is not always the same as what is learned.
Fifty years after the assassination, there is much about Martin Luther King that is forgotten, even as his memory is regularly and widely invoked. The only place outside the United States with an official King Day of remembrance is Hiroshima, Japan, where King’s lifelong commitment to nuclear disarmament is celebrated. More widely, however, King is presented as the moderate, the doomed idealist, predestined to be replaced by the true radicals and militants with their promises of somehow redemptive violence. In a world in which states still seek security by acquiring nuclear weapons, and terror is seen as the preferred strategy of radicals, King needs to be remembered – remembered for his belief in the intrinsic value of every child of God, remembered for his conviction that non-violence is the only sword that heals, and honoured for his commitment to a life of unrelenting action against injustice.
Memphis sanitation strike
On 12 February 1968, hundreds of black sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike, following years of protests over low pay, racial discrimination and dangerous working conditions. The strikers were supported by King, who spoke at a rally on 18 March and joined a demonstration on 28 March. On 3 April, King spoke at the Mason Temple in Memphis, calling for continued non-violent action – his last public speech before his assassination.
Assassination of John F Kennedy
On 22 November 1963, the open-topped presidential limousine was being driven through Dallas, Texas, when three shots were fired from a nearby window. Kennedy was hit in the back and head; he was pronounced dead 30 minutes later. Lee Harvey Oswald – identified as the shooter – was arrested within two hours, but was himself shot by Jack Ruby on 24 November before being charged. His motive remains unknown.
Carl von Ossietzky
A German journalist, Ossietzky’s experiences as a soldier during the First World War reinforced his pacifist beliefs. In 1931 he was convicted of high treason after publishing reports that Germany was rebuilding military capabilities in contravention of the Treaty of Versailles, and spent seven months in prison. He was arrested again in 1933 and subsequently endured brutal treatment in Esterwegen concentration camp. In 1936, already suffering from tuberculosis as a results of his imprisonment, Ossietzy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He died in hospital, still under police guard, in 1938.
Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech
Conservative British MP Enoch Powell’s emotive address in Birmingham on 20 April 1968 criticised mass immigration to the UK. He opposed a proposed Race Relations Bill and, in words described by Conservative leader Edward Heath – who sacked Powell from his post as Shadow Defence Secretary – as “inflammatory”, mspecifically mentioned black immigrants in a speech some believed incited racial hatred.
In 1972, burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate Complex, Washington DC, and installed listening devices. Investigations revealed that members of the Committee for the Re-election of the President had planned and funded the break-ins. After Nixon’s involvement and later deceptions were revealed, he resigned the presidency on 9 August 1974.
On 12 August 2017, large numbers of right-wing, white nationalist and supremacist activists joined a ‘Unite the Right’ march in Charlottesville, Virginia. Following a smaller unofficial rally the previous evening, at which neo-Nazi, white supremacist and anti-Semitic slogans were chanted, counter-demonstrators (pictured above) gathered and confrontations erupted into violence. After the rally was aborted, a man drove a car into the counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
On 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks – an African-American seamstress and local secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – was ordered to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to a white man. She refused, and was arrested and fined. This sparked a boycott of buses by Montgomery’s black community, an action led by Martin Luther King Jr that continued for over a year and resulted in legal desegregation of public buses.
Peter J Ling is professor of American studies at the University of Nottingham, and author of the biography Martin Luther King, Jr. (Routledge, 2nd ed, 2015)