King, Kennedy, Life & Death
April 4 is the anniversary of the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis Tennessee. We rightly celebrate his birthday, now a national holiday, rather than his death day. But his assassination should be remembered. The moral struggle which cost his life puts our contemporary policy debates in context.
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was in Indiana pressing his whirlwind presidential campaign when King was murdered. Advisers urged suspending events. Instead, RFK spoke at a rally in the inner city of Indianapolis. He underscored his rarely mentioned open emotional wound, the assassination of his brother JFK, in a remarkably eloquent plea for racial tolerance.
The message struck home. Violent riots occurred in seventy-six U.S. cities after King was killed, but Indianapolis remained calm. RFK was himself assassinated in Los Angeles in June.
Both Kennedy and King have to a significant degree been transformed into mythic figures, at the cost of the insights provided by their authentic human qualities. Idealizing martyred leaders inevitably distorts history. That is unfortunate for two reasons.
First, oversimplifying the complexity of the human spirit diminishes the subject. The leader actually seems less consequential as the internal personal as well as external battles that define courage are erased. Second, oversimplifying past times limits our own capacity to draw the most accurate and therefore best lessons for the future.
Neither Robert Kennedy nor Martin Luther King was a saint. Also, contrary to folklore, Kennedy was struggling against long odds for the Democratic nomination when he was gunned down. King preached unity but never achieved that goal.
As political passions and social turmoil intensified during the 1960s, civil rights efforts fractured. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which preached racial integration and nonviolent tactics, was overshadowed by militant organizations. The Congress of Racial Equality and Black Panther Party staked out more radical ground; the violent Panthers garnered enormous media attention.
Yet those other groups have faded and King endures. As this implies, King's nonviolence remained central to the broad current of great change in American race relations. In 1955, Rosa Parks helped spark the modern civil rights movement by refusing to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery Alabama. She and others built the foundation for King's later efforts.
Fully making this point requires including other noteworthy political leaders. Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson secured passage of major civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. Less mentioned today, but equally important, is Pres. Harry S. Truman's historic decision in 1948 to desegregate the armed forces.
At the 1948 Democratic national convention, young Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey proposed a civil rights plank for the party platform. Many advised against this risky step; Humphrey persevered and won. In the resulting political maelstrom, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina led Southern delegates out of the convention. They established the breakaway Dixiecrat Party, with Thurmond the presidential nominee, and won Deep South states in the fall election. Despite this, Pres. Truman was reelected.
Martin Luther King was a particularly important leader, and without him another much less desirable national course might have resulted. White as well as black leaders aided the movement.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized wiretaps of King and other civil rights activists. A different RFK spoke in Indianapolis about tragic loss as catalyst for insight, quoting ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus on wisdom derived from grief, strength forged from ordeal.
Election of President Barack Obama dramatically illustrates the success of our national civil rights struggle.
(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin. Contact him at acyrcarthage.edu.)