The End of Civil Rights Revolution: Dr. King’s Assassination

April 4, 1968, about 6:01pm. We should always remember that time. It has now been 44 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. He was moving conceptually and in his actions in a more radical direction combining antiracist, broader anticlass, and antiwar efforts—which efforts likely had much to do with his assassination.King (Photo: Wiki-images)

I remember the day vividly, like it was yesterday, and can still remember the time of day when one of my students at the University of California called me to tell of the terrible event, and I can still remember well my and his distressed emotions as we talked about the shooting. (We did not know Dr. King had died at that time.) He was one of the few African American students then at that university and as one would expect was devastated by the event, as I was too

In some ways, King’s assassination marked the apparent end of much of the black civil rights movement in the 1960s, not necessarily a coincidence. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder about this historical timing — or to wonder where this country would be if thinker/leaders like Dr. King and Malcolm X had lived to lead an ever renewed rights and racism-change movement.

The events leading up to Dr. King’s assassination need to be taught everywhere. In late March 1968 Dr. King and other civil rights leaders participated in and supported the local Memphis sanitary works employees, black and white, who were striking for better wages and working condition.

Conditions in Memphis, as elsewhere, were very oppressive for workers, in both racial and class terms, as this wikipedia summary makes clear:

In one incident, black street repairmen received pay for two hours when they were sent home because of bad weather, but white employees were paid for the full day.

King gave his last (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”) speech at a rally for the workers at the Mason Temple in Memphis.
This is the famous section near the end of his prophetic speech, where he reflects on death threats he had often received:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. 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. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.

Let us remember him well, and especially his prophetic antiracist, anti-capitalistic, and antiwar messages, on this day, April 4, 2012.


  1. You know, the 70s is a time I really should look back over. I know a lot of people think the Movement unraveled without MLK and Malcolm X to lead it. I used to think that, too. But now I realize middle-class sentiments of the Movement left a lot of people out. I give King credit for the Poor People’s Campaign, it came a little late in the game (comparatively).

    But more than that, there must’ve been the feeling that if white America couldn’t accept MLK and non-violence, they were a lost cause. Both whites on the one hand, thus “Black is Beautiful,” and non-violence on the other. The issue was less a lack of leadership and more a lack of patience and, to some extent, hope.

    I’m not sure if many people born in the 70s and 80s are even aware of any significance of April 4. Certainly I wasn’t. That said, if we’re going to take Jan 15 to sermonize each other about judging the content of character rather than the content of skin, it’s certainly more than appropriate that we take today to reflect on the totality of his message. To put it as succinctly as I can, I hardly imagine Alveda King, Travis Rowley, Tom Horne, the National Black Republicans’ Association, Glenn Beck or anyone else on the right would support a candidate Rev. Dr. King for president.

    And before anyone misunderstands that I’m challenging Republicans out of partisan bias, let’s not forget that once it came out, in this imaginary presidential run, that Dr. King supports reparations for slavery and Counter-Reconstruction/Jim Crow, he’d lose the white liberal vote, too. (There seems to be a lot of liberal white “guilt” but not much cash.)

    If King were alive today was looking at 21st century America with “fresh” eyes, I don’t imagine his message would’ve changed much from 1968. With the exception of personality and particular word choice, Dr. King would be his own “Rev. Wright.”

    Then again, he probably would’ve been able to marshal white working class support, so who knows. Maybe he could win the Dem nomination or at least be a formidable 3rd party candidate. Because I just now occurred to me that his message of economic justice would appealed to working class whites in a way people on the national scene haven’t been able to articulate sense. Maybe, right?

    And considering that he was open to learning and understanding more, I can’t imagine he’d be against, ie, the ERA or even marriage. I include support for gay marriage rights as a possibility because he acknowledged that morality couldn’t be legislated. On the other hand, though, he also acknowledged that behavior could be regulated and thus, no gay marriage. Then again, he’d probably analyze homophobia as part of the larger white patriarchal system, so gay marriage is back on the table!

    Sorry, I did not intend to take it this far. I promise I didn’t. But imagining how his message would play today is a fun thought experiment.

  2. Manju

    I think the irony is that civil rights ended up undermining King’s “anti-capitalsitic” message…at least electorally.

    First of all, civil rights was fundamentally successful. After King’s assassination, the ’68 and ’70 cra’s were barely contested. But the end of Jim Crow also meant the end of the New Deal Coalition, which King sought to expand.

    While its popular to call Southern Democratic Segregationist politicians “Conservatives”, in reality they really just sought to conserve segregation. But economically, they were solidly to the left of republicans (even before the republican conservative revolution) and averaged out to being Bluedogs. Moderates who leaned left.

    After 1964, this group no longer enjoyed “tantamount to election.” The New Deal collapsed with Jim Crow because it was built on it.

  3. cordoba blue

    Hi Manju,
    Your post interested me. If you have the time, could you please explain how the New Deal was built around Jim Crow? Was it because the New Deal basically helped whites, but not African Americans? Was it because if the New Deal policies had included blacks, it would not have been feasible? Please explain. This aspect of American history intrigues me. Thanks.

  4. Manju

    If you have the time, could you please explain how the New Deal was built around Jim Crow?

    hi cordoba blue,

    I should’ve written; “The New Deal Coalition collapsed with Jim Crow, because it was built on it.”

    My point is not that the New Deal was discriminatory (although it was), but that discrimination (ie, Jim Crow) enabled the New Deal.

    Here is a quick illustration of what I mean:

    Below, the final vote on the 1935 Social Security Act of all the Senators from the 11 former Confederate States (except Virginia, since Govtrack is missing the data…along with some Senators from GA TN, and LA).

    Aye Bankhead, John [D]
    Aye Black, Hugo [D]

    Aye Caraway, Hattie [D]
    Aye Robinson, Joseph [D]

    Aye Fletcher, Duncan [D]
    Aye Trammell, Park [D]

    Aye George, Walter [D]

    Aye Overton, John [D]

    Aye Bilbo, Theodore [D]
    Aye Harrison, Byron [D]

    North Carolina
    Aye Bailey, Josiah [D]
    Aye Reynolds, Robert [D]

    Aye McKellar, Kenneth [D]

    Aye Sheppard, Morris [D]
    Aye Connally, Thomas [D]

    South Carolina
    Aye Byrnes, James [D]
    Not Voting Smith, Ellison [D]

    100% of the Senators from the most conservative region in the land voted “Aye” for one of the most liberal pieces of legislation this land has ever seen. Not to mention the 100% party-affiliation.


  1. Notable Links: 4-5/12 (Deluxe Edition) « BROTHA WOLF

Leave a Reply