Remembering Martin Luther King Jr, 50 years after assassination

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Events are planned across the United States to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

The 39 year old Baptist Minister died in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4th 1968 while standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel when a sniper’s bullet struck him in the neck sparking rioting in more than 100 cities across the country.

Watch as Sherwin Bryce-Pease looks back at that fateful day and engages both historians and political scientists about King’s legacy, five decades later:

There’s a famous black and white picture taken moments after the bullet struck Dr King in the neck.  Witnesses pointing from the balcony where he lay bloodied, to where they thought the shot was fired from – and while conspiracies remain about government and police involvement, drifter James Earl Ray was convicted of the crime and sentenced to 99 years in prison where he later died.

At the time of his death King was said to be depressed, fatigued at the slow progress they were making towards social justice while faced with the impatience of a younger generation who increasingly challenged his stance on non-violence. Professor Brown, of the City University of New York, is also the Executive Director of the American Social History Project.

“It has to be placed in the context of the fact that there’d already been a number of assassinations, of course the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the assassination of Malcolm X which had happened three years before. So there was already in the air this sort of trepidation around public figures but I think that King was particularly powerful because he was right at the cusp of losing some of his popularity or singularity as a figure.”

Many people thought that black Americans would just rip this country apart.

Dr. Christina Greer is a political scientist and the author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration and the Pursuit of the American Dream.

“President Kennedy has already been assassinated, so the country’s already on edge thinking about how should we treat our great leaders and what could potentially happen to them and so I think a lot of white Americans were afraid that black Americans would burn this country to the ground.

“James Brown in a famous speech after one of his concerts calls for calm, he doesn’t want people to riot, there had already been some rebellions in major cities in the months and years preceding DR King’s death, so for some white Americans they were happy right, finally it happened and then for others I think they worried that King’s dream would die along with him.”

Historian Professor Joshua Brown points to that period as time in America were it was risky standing up and making progressive arguments.

“This was the point of no return for a lot of people who had hopes for change and that the reactions that were already beginning to be against a lot of progressive change around issues of equality, had already begun to take place and I think that this was already seen as both symbolic and also indicative that standing up was going to get you killed.”

The work the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize recipient was involved in was stressful to say the least; in the face of hate, discrimination and intolerance across the country. But he also began to broaden his message to demand economic justice, not just for black people but for down-trodden people everywhere.

“Three months later when Robert Kennedy is assassinated it almost clinches the notion that any public figure that is taking a stand, that’s a bit shocking to the establishment position, is in trouble.”

He also came out against the Vietnam War in a speech that drew widespread condemnation from the political class at the time while the FBI regarded him as the most dangerous man in America. Dr Greer, who also teaches political science at Fordhan University, explains.

“That’s a dangerous message for people who are in power, who believe in capitalism, white supremacy and anti-black racism and patriarchy – if someone is trying to collectively gather up all the oppressed people around the globe, from country to country, to say you know what, we can actually rise up and fight for ourselves  and then you also had the King who really said, I want to talk about wage equity, I want to talk about a living wage, I want to talk about not just jobs but how do we plant a foundation to have a real future, not just some pennies on the dollar and that is really dangerous.”

50 years later, he’s among the most celebrated Americans with a national holiday in his name and the King memorial next to the national mall in Washington.

“I think he’d be impressed with some progress, record numbers of black elected holding electoral office across the country, I would assume be impressed that this country was able to elect a black president, I think he’d be really disappointed with the amount residential segregation that still exists, segregation within educational systems even when the buildings are integrated, the classrooms are segregated. I think he’d be really disappointed with the lack of wealth that’s been able to stay within black communities and the institutional barriers that this country has consistently put up to make sure that black Americans are still not fully incorporated as citizens.”

Professor Brown, takes a more cynical view:

“Martyrs are forever. People get to be old and get to contradict everything that they had stood for before. It’s problematic. Having said that, I’ve heard some people say things: well he wouldn’t have respect now because he was religious. I think that’s nonsense. I think if anything, one of the things he was beginning to talk about even in his last writings, was the realization that the tactics had to change, that in many ways African Americans would need to confront the necessity to create politics blocks in one way or another, that there was going to be a much more practical politics to be involved here. Now that might have taken away his stature, on the other hand he might have ended up being quite effective.”

The project of racial and economic equity is still very much a work in progress.