Fifty years after King’s assassination, struggles for racial equality appear as acute now as they did then, except the juxtapositions between signs of racial progress and the reality of continued racial injustice are even more stark. The “post-racial” symbolism in the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president existed uneasily alongside the harsh reality of mass incarceration of black and brown men and women, boys and girls. Just as 1968 ushered in the last of the long hot summers that began in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray triggered urban rebellions in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore that recalled the fits of racial unrest that gripped the nation 50 years ago.
King proved to be more than just the civil rights movement’s most important national political mobilizer. Over the course of a dozen tumultuous years, King helped to reimagine America’s collective moral and political imagination, successfully arguing in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in April 1963 that racial justice comprised one of the fundamental principles of American democracy. He amplified this argument four months later at the March on Washington in a speech whose more radical impulses were quickly overshadowed by an extemporaneous detailing of the “dream” he envisioned for the American nation-state.
By 1968 King’s dreams grew more boldly combative, spurred by a growing realization that America required more than political reforms that confronted democracy’s jagged edges. Armed with a Nobel Peace Prize and an international reputation as a human rights activist, King forcefully — if belatedly, according to some critics — denounced the Vietnam War on April 4, 1967, one year to the day of his assassination.
In the year before his death, King joined with Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael in denouncing the Vietnam War, broke with his friend President Lyndon B. Johnson and began an anti-poverty crusade that linked race, class and gender struggles in creative ways. Near the end of his life the preacher listened more intently to fellow activists than ever, forging alliances with welfare rights activists, farmworkers, Native Americans and poor whites in an effort to fundamentally transform American democracy.
King’s Poor People’s Campaign detoured in Memphis in the spring of 1968 in support of 1,000 black sanitation workers on strike for a living wage. King’s final speeches found him railing against political injustice and economic evils that he traced back to the doorsteps of American empire. He characterized “militarism, racism and materialism” as the greatest threats to humanity, criticized the United States as the “greatest purveyor of violence” in the world, and pleaded with the nation to find its way back to “those great wells of democracy.” America’s most sacredly enduring values, King argued, were found in the sacred texts of the Founding Fathers and best exemplified by society’s underdogs — black sharecroppers, Latino farmworkers, welfare mothers, and schoolchildren who filled jails in opposition to Jim Crow.
One hundred and twenty-five American cities exploded in violence after King’s death. In Washington, Johnson ordered 4,000 Army and National Guard troops to cordon off the White House. Nationally, 70,000 military service members and National Guardsmen were deployed in 29 states. Black Power activists, most notably Carmichael, openly called for political revolution following King’s assassination, citing his death as the end of nonviolent civil disobedience as a strategy for social change.
King’s death sparked even more grief than violence. More than 100 million Americans watched his televised funeral broadcast on the three major networks, and Johnson, who did not attend the funeral, ordered flags on federal buildings flown at half-staff. Every major presidential candidate attended the funeral, including Republican Richard M. Nixon and Democrats Robert F. Kennedy, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, and Eugene McCarthy. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s appearance in Atlanta rekindled memories of the John F. Kennedy assassination almost five years earlier.
Our current age of President Trump, alt-right nationalists and white supremacists marching on college campuses lighting tiki torches in homage to the Ku Klux Klan echoes aspects of 1968, especially the vertiginous racial politics. King proved less successful in institutionalizing his increasingly radical vision of American democracy. His unrelenting critique of white supremacy, war, racism and poverty in 1968 found him reaching a kind of political detente with Black Power radicals. His willingness to use words of fire in support of racial justice echoed aspects of Malcolm X’s fiery denunciation of social injustice even if his methods remained nonviolent.
King’s death did not end the civil rights movement or signal the defeat of efforts to reimagine American democracy on behalf of the poor, disenfranchised, imprisoned and suffering. In fact, these movements proliferated during the first half of the next decade, in many ways institutionalizing themselves into the fabric of liberal democratic capitalism through legislative protections for children’s health insurance, the environment, the mentally and physically challenged, and many other disadvantaged groups.
The assassination did in many ways symbolize the decline of a national recognition of American culpability — and potential remediation — in maintaining systems of power and structures of oppression that King devoted his life to challenging. It is no accident that the rhetoric of “law and order” that Nixon rode into the White House in 1968 — one that carried Trump to similar heights in 2016 — flourished nationally after the King assassination.
King’s legacy for American democracy in 2018 is Janus-faced. His assassination inspired the passage of fair-housing legislation that, despite having limited enforcement powers, is regarded as the final policy tribute to King’s dream of multiracial democracy. Racial segregation, in housing and public schools, has worsened since King’s death, aided and abetted by local, state, and federal policies — from zoning laws to the way in which school and voting districts are drawn to tax policy and gentrification — that have distorted the very ideal of racial integration. The year 1968 also marked the early beginnings of the federal government’s entree into national crime policy, one that diverted billions of dollars away from anti-poverty, social welfare, and educational programs to systems of punishment aimed at containing, surveilling and locking up some of the most impoverished black and brown communities in the nation.
King’s ultimate act of defiance, his ability to speak truth to power at the cost of his reputation and ultimately his life, offers another side of his legacy, one that social justice activists the world over have embraced. The Black Lives Matter Movement’s efforts to articulate an “intersectional” analysis of the way in which race, class, gender and sexuality are used to batter some of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens echoes the radical ethos of 1968. “The Whole World is Watching!” activists chanted in Chicago while facing down police brutality outside the Democratic National Convention that year. That slogan illustrated the yawning chasm between the rhetoric of American democracy and its brutal reality.
King’s lasting gift to the nation — what makes 1968 such an important and resonant year for our time — was his unflinching recognition of America’s shortcomings and his persistent belief that the nation could transform itself through collective sacrifice, political struggle and spiritual renewal. In an era before mass incarceration weaponized the criminal justice system, King fully understood the depth and breadth of structural racism and that economic inequality required personal sacrifice and steadfast moral courage. Stalking the world stage like a man on fire, King — who had dined with presidents, European and African royalty, and international dignitaries — perished fighting alongside garbage workers and welfare mothers.
One of the least-quoted lines from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech remains one of its most prescient. “With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” That sentiment, alongside the grueling work of grass-roots organizing and political mobilization, remains the bedrock secular faith of contemporary movements for social justice that have traveled a long, winding road since 1968 that many hope will ultimately, just as King famously remarked, bend toward justice.
Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and Founding Director for the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.