Martin Luther King was an iconic figure, who came to be seen as the embodiment of the early civil rights movement of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience. When he died in 1968, this was widely perceived as a symbolic end to this early phase of civil rights activism, or at least a definitive break. Over time, he has grown to almost mythological status and is one of the few civil rights leaders that virtually everyone knows. The fact that he has been elevated to an almost mythological status raises the question of how people at the time felt about him, where we see diverging testimonies about his life, his death and his legacy.
Not surprisingly, Baldwin, who knew King personally and believed in a lot of what he did, described it not just as tragic, but as tragic to him personally, remarking that “something has altered in me, something has gone away” (No Name 9) and commenting several times throughout No Name in the Street on the shock he felt when he heard the news, and how moved he was by the funeral. Even ten years later, in 1978, Baldwin wrote that even he still, he still felt “the same unbelieving wonder, the same shock and helpless rage” (“The News from All the Northern Cities Is Grim” 107), showing the profound impact it had on him. In this essay he discusses their relationship, how they met during the Montgomery bus boycott and how little has changed, despite the progress that King made in revealing the truth about race in the United States. Although Baldwin’s portrayal of King’s death is obviously colored by his personal feelings, it is clear that Baldwin saw it as momentous and deeply saddening, not just for him but for the civil rights movement as a whole.
‘The assassin’s bullet killed a period of history. It killed a dream.’ (Cleaver)
Cleaver, on the other hand, saw the assassination as confirmation of the fact that nonviolence was not a viable strategy. He responded to Martin Luther King’s death in a short text from 1968 titled “Requiem for nonviolence,” in which he suggests the assassination was shocking but not surprising. After all, “here was a man who refused to abandon the philosophy and the principle of nonviolence in the face of a hostile and racist nation” (par. 1), suggesting that King’s refusal to give up on nonviolence was naive. Nevertheless, he acknowledged King’s influence and the momentous impact of his death, saying that “the assassin’s bullet not only killed Dr. King, it killed a period of history. It killed a hope, and it killed a dream” (Requiem). This helps to explain why Cleaver and the Black Panthers were impacted by his death. Not only was it the case that “the King assassination accelerated the conflicts and confrontations during 1968” (Soul on Fire 93), with the FBI coming after the Black Panthers with even more force than before, but it also sparked fear in people who still supported nonviolence. Although the strategy had already been in decline, the death of King was really the final straw; it “shook Stokely and Rap and James Forman right down to their sneakers” (Soul on Fire 89), confronting them with the reality that they were no longer safe within the confines of college campuses. That is why they decided to change their tactics and look to groups like the Black Panthers for help. Although Baldwin and Cleaver therefore saw the assassination of Martin Luther King very differently, both acknowledged the grave tragedy of his death and his influence.
A man and a movement
What made Martin Luther King’s death particularly momentous was what he represented for African Americans across the United States. When Baldwin gives the suit he had worn to his funeral to a friend, he remarks that it was really their suit; of the ordinary black people, because “they had created Martin, he had not created them, and the blood in which the fabric of that suit was stiffening was theirs” (No Name 21), suggesting that he did not just fight for them or represented, he was them. Despite this iconic status, it is important to keep in mind that Martin Luther King’s attitudes and position had not remained unchanged throughout the nineteen-sixties. Deloria points out that although King had been an influential figure in the early civil rights movement, some of his approaches were no longer as effective as they had been. He had put up symbolic events (We Talk 49) and used flaws in the system, like the fact that “Southern cities could not possibly jail everyone who marched” (We Talk 66) to achieve his goals, but symbolic events had by now lost their power and nonviolent action had been discredited. Martin Luther King himself recognized this.
In comparing his attitudes in 1968 to his speech during the March on Washington, Baldwin notes that King seemed to have lost some of his hopefulness, as he came to realize that peaceful activism had only postponed “the hour of dreadful reckoning” (No Name 141), and that a violent conflict was perhaps inevitable. That is also why his views shifted toward a more radical type of thought, because of which “he was immediately classified as an “outside agitator” with suspected communist leanings” (Deloria We Talk 120) by white allies who had initially supported or at least tolerated him. Ultimately, though, King was still strongly connected to the civil rights movement, and his death led to a decline in the movement. Once he died, there were few other leaders left and “no longer could people identify with simply understood people who stood for simple goals” (Deloria Custer 197), indicating a direct connection between him and the state of the movement. While it is important to keep this mind, these developments did not change the fact that a majority of African Americans still felt strongly about Martin Luther King and everything he represented, because of which his death had a tremendous impact.
‘One assassination among many.’
Politics by assassination
Finally, it is important to recognize that Martin Luther King was far from the only person to be assassinated during this period. It had been five years since the death of John F. Kennedy, three years since Malcolm X had died, and within two months after King’s death, Robert Kennedy would be the fourth major political figure to die at the hands of an assassin. Although there is no inherent connection between these murders, it does give a good impression of how violent the atmosphere was in the nineteen-sixties. For someone like Mailer, it was an indication of how bad things had gotten at this point, making reference to it in his description of the lead-up to the Democratic Convention (Miami 102), but without really engaging with the meaning of King’s death or legacy. Not surprisingly, these murders led to complaints from people about the flaws in American society, taking “the assassinations as a symptom of a deep inner rot that had suddenly set in” (Deloria Custer 76), but Deloria rejects these ideas because the treatment of Indigenous peoples shows that the United States has always been like this.
What is clear, however, is that the deaths of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, both of whom were influential figures, were major blows to their respective movements. Even if Deloria’s suggestion that they were killed by the system for representing alternative ideologies (We Talk 205) and it was a sign of a deeper crisis, might be an overstatement, these events did not occur in isolation. Baldwin also suggests that no matter who pulled the trigger, Malcolm X’s assassination was “dictated by the most successful conspiracy in the history of the world” (No Name 118); white supremacy, and the bullet had been made by the West. Dramatic or not, it cannot be denied that notions of white supremacy were still prevalent, and it is not a stretch to suggest that these assassinations were an outcome of the excesses of American society’s deeply ingrained racism.
- To what extent is Martin Luther’s King iconic status justified by the realities of his life and the civil rights movement?
- How important were leaders to the various strands of the civil rights movement?
- Can the unusually high number of assassinations considered to be characteristic for this time period?