Civil Rights Renaissance to Remember Martin Luther King

March 4, 2018 is the 50th anniversary of what may arguably be the end of America’s second revolution:  the civil rights movement.  On March 4, 1968, Martin Luther was assassinated on the balcony of the Loraine Motel in Memphis.  The assassination was a jacobin fantasy long sought against King since the inception of his leadership efforts for civil rights beginning in 1956.  King’s assassination 50 years ago was perhaps an end of the community of the beloved and a non-violent effort to bring a stop to segregation and other overwhelming aspects of racism in the United States.  King’s efforts along with other leaders such as James Farmer, Jr. and James Meredith were increasingly sidelined by more militant efforts to reject American political conventions as articulated by men like Stokely Carmichael in his famous alternative to the non-violent movement expressed in the simple words:  “Black Power!” 50 years later, America needs more than ever a renaissance of the American civil rights movement. 

With the ascendancy of black power movements like the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army, white participants in the civil rights movement were expelled.  The Christian, non-violent, and religious trappings of the movement were discarded and the partisan beliefs that blacks must claim for themselves the rights so long denied became dominant and entrenched.  Carmichael incited the counter movement when he co-opted James Meredith’s “March Against Fear.”  On June 16, 1966, Carmichael led the crowd in chants of “black power” and explained in Greenwood, Mississippi: “every courthouse in Mississippi ought to be burned down tomorrow to get rid of the dirt and the mess.” The idea of ‘burning it down’ has become a trademark of an Alinsky-inspired vision of riots and violent destruction across the nation.  Carmichael’s frustration tapped into an endless sea of anger all people feel at the pain of genuine injustice.  Academics have to a large extent fanned the flames of 50 years of black power fantasies by offering false hagiography of leaders such as Malcolm X.  In current re-tellings of the 1960s, Malcolm X is viewed as the path not taken versus King, and a militancy we should now embrace to reduce problems like police killings of innocent black men like Stephon Clark.  Malcolm’s last words, less than 24 hours after having his house bombed by jacobin radicals and one week before being assassinated himself, show a change of heart different from his present hagiography:  “I say again that I'm not a racist, I don't believe in any form of segregation or anything like that. I'm for the brotherhood of everybody, but I don't believe in forcing brotherhood upon people who don't want it. Long as we practice brotherhood among ourselves, and then others who want to practice brotherhood with us, we practice it with them also, we're for that. But I don't think that we should run around trying to love somebody who doesn't love us.”  Malcolm X’s repudiation of segregation and exit from the Nation of Islam was a diametrical change from his debates with James Farmer Jr. in 1962 and demonstrated a decisive break with the radical visions of NOI.  His change of heart came not long after civil rights workers James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were murdered in Mississippi in the summer of 1964.  Exasperated with the non-violent methods of his martyred brother within the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Ben Chaney joined the ranks of the Black Liberation Army in the 1970s.  This terrorist group was dedicated to violent revolution against racism within the United States.  Chaney went to jail for years after being caught running guns related to several murders committed by the group.  He has since renounced the path of violence he formerly embraced.

In 2018, we need a renaissance of the American civil rights movement.  They myth that confrontation, anger and neo-segregationism have not been tried sufficiently, needs to be seen for the 50-year failure it has been in American race relations.  The nation needs to re-discover King’s words at the conclusion of his letter from a Birmingham jail.  In the closing, King said the South would someday remember her heroes: “the James Merediths, courageously and with a majestic sense of purpose, facing jeering and hostile mobs and the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer.” James Meredith is still alive today in Mississippi and largely shunned by experts for failing to maintain the reactionary political zeal that holds civil rights memory captive to one political ideology.  Meredith’s 2012 biography, “Mission from God,” stands as a powerful correction to the conventional secular and ideological narratives of how we should both remember and act upon race relations.  Civil rights heroes such as John Lewis need to remember the true calling of civil rights when confronted with the bi-partisan opportunity to stand with President Trump at the opening of the Mississippi civil rights museum in Jackson.  Great non-partisan leaders like Reverend John Perkins continue to point us toward a better path.  As long as civil rights memory is used as a narrow ideological whipping post for Republicans, it is African-American men who will bear the brunt of ongoing injustice.  Meredith, Farmer, King, and Malcolm X all understood this dangerous jacobin end of spiraling partisan cynicism.  The 50 year anniversary of King’s assassination in the immediate aftermath of Easter, is an ideal time for a national reconsideration of our present path on race relations.  The conclusion of King’s last public words on the night of April 3—the eve of his assassination, are a compelling reminder of our eternal idealistic call for justice as seen through God’s eyes:

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I'm happy, tonight.

I'm not worried about anything.

I'm not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”

Dr. Ben Voth is an associate professor of Corporate Communication and Public Affairs and director of debate and speech at Southern Methodist University.  He recently co-authored a book on American politics with Dr. Robert Denton entitled Social Fragmentation and the Decline of American Democracy by Palgrave Macmillan (2017). 

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