Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered 40 years ago today just after 6pm as he stood on a balcony of the Lorraine motel in Memphis, Tennessee. A single rifle bullet hit him in the jaw, then severed his spinal cord. James Earl Ray, a white man, was convicted of the killing and sentenced to 99 years.
King made a famous denunciation of America’s war in Vietnam exactly a year before his murder, before a crowd of 3,000 in the Riverside Church in Manhattan. He described Vietnam’s destruction at the hands of “deadly Western arrogance”, insisting that “we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor… taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
Within hours of King’s murder, rioting broke out in 80 cities across the country. Dozens of people, mostly black, were killed. On April 6 the Oakland police cornered the Black Panther leadership and when one of the young leaders, Bobby Hutton, emerged with his shirt off and his hands up, shot him dead.
In contrast to Bobby Hutton, the Panthers and above all Malcolm X, slain in 1965, white liberal opinion has hailed King as a man who chose to work non-violently within the system. Near the end, King himself was haunted by a sense of failure. In his last months he was booed at a mass meeting in Chicago and, as he lay sleepless that night, he knew why: “I had urged them [his fellow blacks] to have faith in America and in white society… They were now booing because they felt we were unable to deliver on our promises… They were now hostile because they were watching the dream they had so readily accepted turn into a nightmare.”
As the journalist Andrew Kopkind wrote shortly after King’s assassination, “That he failed to change the system that brutalizes his race is a profound relief to the white majority. As a reward they have now elevated his minor successes into major triumphs.” The night before he was shot, King said in a speech to the striking garbage workers of Memphis: “But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”
Forty years on, history has not vindicated King. America is still disfigured by racial injustice. Militant black leadership has all but disappeared.
To black radicals, the sedate homilies of Barack Obama are to the fierce demands for justice of Malcolm X and of King – in his more radical moments – as muzak is to Beethoven. Obama is caught, even as King was. The moment whites fear (admittedly with scant cause) he might raise the political temperature; he’s savaged with every bludgeon of convenience, starting with the robust sermons of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whose sin is to have reminded whites that there are black Americans who are really angry.
“God damn America,” roared Wright, to white America’s consternation and fury. King was just as rough at the Riverside Church in the speech that so terrified the white elites: “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
Pundits and others are trying to posit that their obsession with Reverend Wright because they see him his comments as “Anti-American”. Well, maybe Reverend Wright was following the example of Martin Luther King Jr.- speaking out of the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today- the government of the United States.
Is it “anti-American” to speak out and be angry with your government? Do you have to engage in jingoist flag waving to be a “true American”? Is it wrong to discuss some of the problems that infect our society as a result of our nation’s original sin- slavery? Is it “anti-American” to damn America when our government makes a colossal error or swaggers with Bush style hubris? Does being angry with your country mean that you don’t love your country? That’s what Reverends King and Wright did.
It saddens me that Senator Obama’s loyalty to his pastor- a man he speaks out fervently when he is outraged by our nation’s behavior and a man who served it honorably as a United States marine- is being used as a veiled racist wedge by some- both in the Democratic and Republican parties.
I have hope that we can move further towards Dr. King’s mountain top. I hope we can see his dream. In 1967 Dr. King eloquently challenged the nation and its role of violence in the world. He was the same man that spoke these words:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
A man who dreams these dreams for our nation and a man who can be incensed by the nation when its policies are wrong headed, dangerous and are not centered on equality and peace is a man that truly loves his country. Maybe if someone sits back for a moment and looks at Reverend Wright- his life, his work AND his words- they will see a man that loves his country with honesty, not with blind nationalism.
Senator Obama hasn’t done the politically expedient thing and disavowed a man who was complicated but clearly loves his country enough to speak about it with passion when he angry with its actions and serve it honorably- both within the community of Chicago and as a man inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” Wright gave up his student deferment, left college and joined the United States Marine Corps.
I wouldn’t have walked out of that church either.