Martin Luther King and Black Lives Matter

This week marks fifty years since the death of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was only thirty-nine when he was slain by a white supremacist in Memphis.

In the early 1960s, through his charismatic personality and successful nonviolent tactics, King rose quickly to become the leader of the nation’s civil rights movement. In less than a decade, he had achieved the truly remarkable -- the end to segregation and de facto apartheid in the South.

That it was done so quickly and thoroughly is a testament to King’s outstanding leadership and uncanny ability to read the tide of history. He was the right leader in the right place at the right time, one of those rare visionaries who finished what he started, and believed he would.

King accomplished what few at the time thought possible -- the desegregation of the South through the active involvement of the federal government and the support of the American people (at least those in the North).

Yet King’s success was marked by his own inmate confidence to rise to a challenge with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. He was confident in his own ability to lead the civil rights movement against Southern segregation. And above all, he believed intensely in the righteousness of his cause.

His confidence stemmed in large part from his faith in the American people, whom he needed in his struggle with the Jim Crow South. King believed in the fundamental decency of the average American. He knew they were a civil, fair, tolerant, and moral people with a keen sense of right and wrong.
He was convinced that if all decent Americans realized what was happening to black people in the South, if only they could see the horrible injustices occurring on a daily basis to their fellow citizens, they’d rise up with righteous indignation and demand that their government put an end to it.

He was right.

King’s strategy of nonviolent confrontation was unusual, but not unprecedented.  Mahatma Gandhi had perfected it on a large scale a few decades before against British rule in India. King followed Gandhi’s example and targeted institutions in the South to demand the integration of the most basic aspects of daily life -- schools, buses, waiting rooms, lunch counters.

The plan was simple, yet dangerous. Varying numbers of well-dressed young blacks would enter a public venue for whites only, where they’d be quickly set upon by Southern white cops wielding clubs, often with attack dogs on long leashes, and even high-pressure fire hoses. The protestors would remain nonviolent and stoic under attack.

And it was all seen on the nightly news in living rooms across America, enraging half the country. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as television had just become commonplace in every home. The new media had shown the truth to the whole country. King made sure of it. His tactic worked. Those millions of decent Americans on whom King counted demanded change.

Thus, in just a few years segregation in the South had gone from a way of life to becoming patently illegal, and redefined as blatantly un-American. By the following decade even white Southerners had accepted the changes.

Martin Luther King had succeeded brilliantly.

Yet he always knew he was a target, and about the only thing he and Malcolm X agreed on is that they were both dead men, since it was just a matter of time before each was assassinated.

And they were.

Yet Martin Luther King’s legacy morphed into the America that he envisioned. One in which his “children and grandchildren would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

America before and after King is two different worlds.

Today discrimination is illegal in every venue in the country. Racism is now a vice, deemed one of the lowest conditions of humanity. The few hardcore racists left in America are effectively shunned and isolated, rogue social deviants on the fringes of society. Klansmen are seen as morbid curiosities, neo-Nazis, freaks of nature.

Martin Luther King’s vision of America is not only what he hoped for, but what he expected. Since he believed in America he knew that after integration the country would finally be whole, and the people would gradually live together in relative harmony. Not perfect, but infinitely better than during his dark days in Alabama.

In his vision a future black president was not just speculation, but simply a matter of how soon, since he had little doubt of the virtuous trajectory of his nation, his people. 

He was a true patriot, the quintessential righteous man, the epitome of all that is good and right in America. After Lincoln, he is the leader who did the most to solidify the Union. Like Lincoln, he gave his life to see it through to the end.

Martin Luther King would have been aghast at Black Lives Matter. As a man of peace, he would have rejected their violence, much as he rejected the Black Panthers of his day. He would have shunned their criminal assaults and killing of police. He would have deemed their burning and looting as those of madmen run amuck. He would have been mortified at their racism against white people, shocked by their blatant anti-Semitism.

As a devout Christian, he would have been saddened by their blatant hostility towards their fellow citizens. As a patriot, he would have been dismayed by their unrelenting hostility towards the nation that he loved, the nation that he believed in. As one who gave his life for an integrated America, King would have been appalled by their calls for resegregation.