Early morning April four
shots ring out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
they could not take your pride
In the name of love
What more in the name of love
From "Pride (In the Name of Love)" by U2
April 4 marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of a man I consider the greatest American of my lifetime - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was a 12-year-old seventh-grader at East Junior at the time, but I remember the event as if it were yesterday.
The assassination sparked violence in cities across America in what was one of the most tumultuous years of the 20th century - 1968. Vietnam was at its height with more boys coming back in body bags every day. Riots in the streets. And Bobby Kennedy would be assassinated just two short months later.
To many, the assassination of King came as no surprise - the only question was “when,” not "if” he would be killed. King prophesied his own death the day before in his “mountaintop” speech (“I may not get there with you.”). As early as 1956, King’s home had been bombed. He was arrested more than a dozen times on trumped-up charges from peaceful protests, jailed on several occasions and stoned while leading a march in Chicago in 1966. Too many death threats to count.
In spite of all the hate and vitriol hurled at King and the civil rights movement, it was his nonviolent response King called “this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence” that made it work. As King once said at a rally, “We will wear them down by our capacity to suffer.” And suffer many did, many paying the ultimate price.
There is also no question that King and the civil rights movement were huge beneficiaries of the widespread popularity of television. Images of nonviolent black and white protesters being indiscriminately hosed, attacked by police dogs and beaten under the color of law was pretty shocking to almost anyone’s sensibilities. As King said in a speech at the famous Selma March in 1965, “We are here to say to the white men that we will no longer let them use their clubs on us in dark corners. We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television.”
Although the north was devoid of official Jim Crow laws (separate, but not equal), racism and informal segregation were rampant. Ask any local black person who lived here during that era (see my Jan. 20, 2013, Regulars column interview with George Boykin). After getting hit by a brick on a south-side march in Chicago, King commented, “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen in Chicago.”
What many do not know is that the man we now have a national holiday for was extremely unpopular at the time of his death. According to a 1968 Harris Poll, King had a 75 percent disapproval rating at the time he died. In the early years of the civil rights movement there was much more empathy for King’s efforts which led to landmark legislation including the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But King wanted more, believing that economic justice and civil rights were inextricably linked to right past wrongs.
Calling off Bull Connor’s dogs was one thing, support for King’s guaranteed annual income proposal was another.
With typical King courage, he came out against the war in Vietnam almost exactly a year before his death. Not many people had the courage to do that in 1967. LBJ and many in the civil rights movement felt betrayed, especially given Johnson’s vigorous support of civil rights.
But King wasn’t buying the Pentagon lies and knew most of the blood being spilled in Vietnam during those days was by the working poor, with a disproportionate number being black. As King said in his well-known “Beyond Vietnam” speech, exactly one year before his assassination, “We were taking the young black men ... and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberation in southeast Asia, which they had not found in southwest Georgia and east Harlem.”
Sadly, King was constantly in the crosshairs of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who declared war on King with constant surveillance and all-out efforts to sabotage the movement - a very dark chapter in American history.
If the FBI had spent any of those resources protecting King instead of constantly harassing him, he might be alive today.
Next week: Linda Holub
A Sioux City resident and local attorney, Al Sturgeon is a former Democratic state representative and senator. He is the father of six children.