King was an advocate of peaceful protest, saying it was the only weapon his people had. The Kennedy presidency had achieved disappointingly little of substance in civil rights, until an outbreak of racial violence in Birmingham, Alabama, was widely screened on television. Kennedy proposed a new civil rights bill. The 1963 March on Washington rally was organised in support of this legislation, and the occasion for the address for which King is most vividly remembered – his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
Within two months of the speech, Kennedy was dead. Had King’s dream died too? It seemed not, for President Johnson pushed on with the civil rights legislation enacted in 1964, and in recognition of his campaign, King received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. It was a moment for celebration and reflection.
Yet the struggle was far from over. Deep divisions still fractured American society, most visibly in the city ghettos of Chicago or Los Angeles, and across the old racial battlegrounds of the Deep South. Impatience was reflected in certain more militant activist groups promoting ‘Black Power’ and adopting military-style language, while urging black men to reject the draft (conscription) and refuse to serve in the Vietnam War. In 1967 Muhammad Ali had refused to serve in the army, and had been stripped of his world heavyweight boxing title. He would not return to the ring until 1970.
In early April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was in Memphis, Tennessee, having gone to support a strike by refuse collectors in the city. On 3 April he gave a speech to a group assembled at the Mason Temple. He said,
Next evening, he was staying in Room 306 on the second floor at the Lorraine Motel. While getting ready to attend dinner at the home of a local minister, King stepped out on the balcony of his room to speak to people gathered in the car park below. An unseen gunman was waiting. At 6.05 p.m., Martin Luther King Jr fell, struck by a single shot to the head, apparently fired from across the street; he was rushed to hospital, but pronounced dead an hour later. He was 39 years old.
Civil rights leaders called for calm, but there were outbreaks of rioting as news of the tragedy spread across America. President Johnson declared 7 April a national day of mourning across the United States. On 8 April, Mrs Coretta King led a march through Memphis to commemorate her husband, and on 9 April Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral was attended by political and civil rights leaders, including Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Over 100,000 mourners followed the civil rights leader through Atlanta, the coffin resting on a hearse drawn by a pair of mules.
Extracted from 1968: Those Were The Days by Brian Williams
Half a century from his murder Dr King’s dream of equality for all people, the eradication of poverty, and his legacy of non-violent protest to achieve it, is still a dream. A recent report from the National Civil Rights Museum, in partnership with the University of Memphis found that poverty and inequality are still rife in Shelby County, where Dr King spoke for the Poor People Campaign in 1968. Today 29% of African Americans in Shelby County live in poverty, compared with 9.4 % of white people and median income for African Americans has stubbornly remained at approximately 50% of income for whites. In the words of Dr King, the “deep rumbling of discontent in our cities is indicative of the fact that the plant of freedom has grown only a bud and not yet a flower.” This anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on his vision of an equal America and continue to navigate our route up to the mountaintop.