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The Death Of Martin Luther King, Jr. And The Civil Rights Movement

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I was born February 23, 1961, which meant the New Frontier of John F. Kennedy was just a month old and the civil rights movement was still pretty much in its infancy. My first awareness of the radical changes happening was with the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968.

Even then, the only reason it came to my attention was due to a family vacation in Washington D.C. in May of that year. I have memories of hearing snatches of long distance conversations between my father and the friend we were supposed to be visiting debating the wisdom of the trip.

As with most of my childhood, I retain only brief glimpses of what happened during that trip: The Lincoln Memorial, The Smithsonian Institution, plumes of smoke over the downtown core where fires from riots weeks old still smouldered, seeing more black people on the streets than I had ever seen before, and being told not to bother locking car doors because “it would only make them angry.”

I had been told that President Lincoln had abolished slavery, and looking around at what I considered the vast numbers of black people, I had asked my mother if he had gotten elected because all the black people had voted for him. She said no, not bothering to explain in those days most blacks wouldn’t have been able to vote anyway, and said that black people were a minority of the population. Even if they all had voted for Mr. Lincoln, she said, it wouldn’t have been enough on its own to elect him.

A seven-year-old child sees what’s in front of him and doesn’t think of anything else. Coming from Toronto of the 1960s, with a population of less than 500,000, and very few visible minorities, the visual evidence of Washington D.C. was of a country populated predominantly by black people. I don’t know what the actual demographics of Washington are, or were back then, but I’m sure there wasn’t the black majority I imagined.

Friends of my mother’s had been part of a contingent of young Canadians who had gone down to take part in the Freedom Rides of the early sixties. So she had some first hand accounts to draw upon to help me understand the struggle that had been taking place in the country next to us while I had been learning how to walk.

I don’t think it’s stretching an analogy too much to say at the same time I was beginning to grow up, so was the United States. Neither of us seemed to be in any hurry to rush matters. I didn’t learn to walk until I was almost two (it probably won’t come as any surprise that I was talking by one) and it took until 1964 for the Untied States to pass the Civil Rights Act.

But standing up and putting one foot in front of the other is only the first step in the long process of covering any distance. The riots and the protest marches were the equivalent of an infant’s instinctual need for gratification. While the infant wants food and nurturing, people want freedom and to be treated the same as everyone else.

You know “deep in your heart”, as the song goes, that it’s not right that someone gets preferential treatment over you because of their skin colour. You see that happening and you act out against the injustice inherent in the activity. You don’t have to think about whether it’s fair that one person can go to a school while another can’t because of the colour of their skin.

How many of the “accomplishments” of the civil rights movement in the sixties weren’t anything more than getting black people to be treated like human beings instead of a lesser species? The right to vote, the right to sit and eat where they wanted, and a lot of stuff that privileged people like that white boy from Toronto took for granted.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down, the redress had only started. From sheer momentum alone the movement continued to advance his causes, but could not go any further. His death left a vacuum that to this day has not been filled in any credible manner. How much had really changed other than those basic rights being ceded? What has been accomplished by those who have come after him?

Sure, black people could now go to school and eat anywhere they wanted; but how were they going to afford to pay the restaurant bill or overcome two hundred years of enforced ignorance to pass the entrance exam? It was like presenting a starving man with a full course banquet and saying help yourself, but sewing his lips shut so he can’t eat.

Affirmative action legislation is a helpful tool, but it only works for those who have already managed to cross over the gulf of historical inequity. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina revealed for the first time to all of us how wide that gap still remains. I would think (at least hope so anyway) that it must have shocked those who consider themselves leaders of the African American community even more so than guilt-stricken white liberals.

It’s been easy to become complacent with the current status quo, and forget that millions of people have been left behind. For every general how many single mothers are there? For every doctor and lawyer, how many more janitors are there? For every university graduate how many high school dropouts?

True there are white people in the same boat, but I’m willing to bet the ratio is far less significant than that among blacks. The prevailing image that came out of New Orleans was that the face of inner city poverty in America is still black, or at least a shade of skin darker than white.

Social change came to a screeching halt in 1968. With the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the hijacking of the Democratic nomination for president from Eugene McCarthy into the hands of Hubert Humphrey, and the ultimate election of Richard Nixon as president.

The Great Society programming that had been implemented by Lyndon Johnson in his presidency got washed away in the flood of Viet Nam and military spending under Nixon. (To be fair, the trend had started under Johnson, and caused his near defeat by McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary and his withdrawal from the race for president.)

Although Jimmy Carter in his one term as President tried to bring the focus of the government back onto domestic issues like housing and education, his troubled presidency was either beset by scandal or having to deal with international troubles like the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the political upheaval in Iran that resulted in the storming of the American embassy and the infamous hostage crisis.

Since the Reagan presidency, social spending and government-dictated social changes (never popular in the United States to begin with) have fallen into serious disfavour. Bill Clinton was far too obsessed with Bill Clinton to fulfill his promise, and his final term was hampered by partisan attempts to impeach him because he got caught with his fly open.

With the support of a Republican House and Senate, George W. Bush has continued the pattern of increased military spending and tax cuts at the expense of any social programs begun under Reagan. Whoever succeeds Mr. Bush will be faced with a deficit of such mammoth proportions that the prospects of any great shift to spending on social programs happening in the near future should be considered nil.

What this all boils down to is that aside from a few small initiatives on the state level there have been no significant efforts made to improve the lot of the millions of poor Americans in the urban landscape. Since this has been the province of predominantly Black America since the migrations north during the twenties and thirties, it means that there have been no societal advancements for African Americans of any great significance since the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

In his speech the night prior to his death, where he eerily predicted what was to happen the next day, Mr. King claimed like Moses that he had been to the top of the mountain and seen the Promised Land:

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. — Martin Luther King, Jr. April 3rd 1968

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a Promised Land was one of racial and economic equality, with equal opportunity for all and special privileges for none. His eyesight must have been damned good because almost forty years after that speech we’re no closer to getting there now than we were on that April night in Memphis Tennessee.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • This is a beautifully written and insightful piece but I’m just not certain that I see it in such extremes.

    Call me a hopeless idealist, but I simply don’t believe that if the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were reversed tomorrow that the entire Southern U.S. would immediately backslide into Jim Crow.

    Some places would, but I firmly believe, as a Clinton-loving liberal who grew up in the South, that they would be surprisingly few. And yes, far between.

    Too many of us white boys have grown up in a world where we sat in the same restaurants and tables with people of color; where we didn’t expect or even want anyone to give up their seat on the bus for us; where we were neighbors and friends and lovers and even competitors with those of other ethnicities. I don’t believe for a second that we would rescind those rights if given the chance.

    The struggle for civil rights is one of hearts and minds, and believe it or not, we who believe in equality have won quite a few of them. We’re nowhere near finished–God, have we got a long way to go–but to claim we’ve made absolutely no progress in the last four decades, that’s just wrong.

    African Americans can grow up to be Secretary of State! National Security Advisor! Senators! Astronauts! Nobel Prize winners! Multimillionaire businessmen! These things were unheard of in this country not so long ago. There are reactionary forces but they will not stamp out progress, as long as people keep fighting for it.

    Sorry, Gypsyman…I don’t deny that progress is slow and tedious, at times maddening and disheartening and almost despairing, but it’s been made and is still being made. But to say that no progress has been made at all is no more true than to say that the mission is completely accomplished. And frankly it’s a cause for hopelessness: if we’re not a single step closer to the Promised Land today than we were that day in Memphis, there’s little reason to believe we’ll be any closer in the next forty years, either.

  • Bing

    As Michael points out “African Americans can grow up to be Secretary of State and National Security Advisor.”

    Then they get to be called “Uncle Tom,” “Oreo,” “race traitor,” and other names by many “Clinton loving liberals because they aren’t left wing liberals.

    If we haven’t gotten any closer to Dr. King’s dream it’s surely because of the approach that Democrats and liberals have taken.

    To begin with it was Republicans who voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in much high percentages than the Democrats, who tried to filibuster.

    Ever since then it has been, (i’m sorry Hillary but you’re wrong) Democrats who have kept blacks on the plantation, not Republicans. Democrats and liberals have stamped “victim” on blacks with permanent ink. Democrats and white liberals have basically taken the stance that without help from the Democratic party all a black person can ever be is a victim or if they succeed as a Republican or a conservative then “they aren’t really black.” Democrats and liberals will label all Republicans and conservatives “racists” at the drop of a hat but it is they who expect an individual to hold certain political and social beliefs for no other reason than that person belongs to a certain race and then make racial slurs if that person does not hold those certain beliefs (ie. blacks must be liberal Democrats). I can’t think of anything more racist than this but it is definitely representative of a large portion of American liberals today.

    I wonder what Dr. King would think of these modern day liberals who treat African Americans in such a way.

  • I don’t want you to take offense to this…but is this a US history lesson…given by a Canadian?

    Something tells me…I’m gonna be called an ugly american again pretty soon.

  • zingzing

    bing… did you hear michael call anyone an “uncle tom,” etc.? no, you didn’t. you are so far off base here that it’s not even funny. i know far more liberals than i do conservatives, and i’ve never heard one of them make a racist remark. growing up in a red state, i heard plenty. now, it’s not a large enough sample to make any quick judgements (a la… you…), in asking these bigots what their other political leanings were, it was quite clear that most of them, not all, but most, were conservatives and republicans.

    the modern day “black” is certainly the homosexual, who is denied basic rights that you and i take for granted. why is it that republicans consistently block legislation designed to give them equal protection under the law? it’s bigotry at its most blatant. disgusting.

  • brian


  • Thank you…

  • Bing

    Once again you take stupidity to new heights zing.

    The Democrats are the true racists, taking the black viote for granted as if they owned the minds of blacl people. Do you not think that it was incredibly condescending for Hillary to refer to the House of Reps as a “plantation” in front of a crowd of black people Zing?

    NO liberals call black Republicans/conservatives racial slurs? Well how about the recnt example of Leuitenant Governor of Maryland Michael Steele. When he recently got elected there were numerous left wing blog sites calling him thngs like Oreo, Little black Sambo, and unle tom. How’s that for being a tolerant, enlightened leftists zing. Also you give anecdotal evidence of people you have heard. Well speaking for myself I have heard many liberals say that any black who votes gop is a traitor to thier race and other similiar comments.

    Minorities are nothing but a pawn to liberals to show the rest of the world how “tolerant” how “diverse” and how “caring” they are. But it’s all bullshit. Liberals and Democrats obviously don’t respect minorities at all. This can be seen in how they approach them. Every time a liberal Democrat talks to minorities all they say is ooohhh watch out for those racist Republicans…and “all republicans are is a bunch of racists who want to keep minorities down.”

    If this bullshit were true then how do you explain the fact that president Bush has appointed more minorities within his administration than any other president in history, including the left wing hero Clinton? HOw do you acccount for that Zing? This doesn’t seem to fit into your Republicans are racists argument. Can you please explain it?

    Also how do you explain the fact that every year less blacks are voting Dem and more are voting Republican Zing?

    Last time I checked the Dems are the ones who had a former Klu Klux Klan member representing them in Congress not the Republicans Zing.

    Why is it ok for Hillary to make racists statements but not Trentt Lott Zing?

  • It’s not okay for anybody to make a racist comment.


  • zingzing

    you try to paint all democrats as racists. i simply point out that that’s not true, because, let’s face it, most people are not racists. my anecodotal evidence is just that. i was only pointing out that i know plenty of democrats that aren’t racist. then again, i don’t really hang out with racists. the ones i have run across have almost always been conservatives. it’s almost like it’s a part of being conservative… tolerance is not on the agenda… of course, that’s not true, is it? i’m asking. but, i know where you stand on gay rights.

    i actually haven’t really spoken about any politicians racist comments. i won’t mention trent lott, and i won’t mention hillary. to answer your question, no, she shouldn’t have said what she said. like gypsyman says, it’s not okay for anyone to say, republican or democrat.

    your michael steele example is akin to me bringing up the england’s national front as an example of right wing racism. it’s not an example of what real liberals stand for, bing, and you fucking know it. so cut the crap.

    actually, the general trend among black voters over the past 30 years has been to no identify with any political party. sure, they have left the democratic party consistently. and there have been more blacks voting republican, but most who aren’t identifying themselves with the democratic party don’t wish to identify with any political party. if the republican party has gained any black votes during the past couple of elections, you can attribute that to their increasing religious slant, and the fact that they are against gay marriage… sadly, a majority of black voters are also against it. also there is the death penalty, which, despite the fact that it punishes far more black people than white people, blacks continue to support. it has less to do with democratic racism, and more to do with issues. so that’s how i explain it.
    you say that liberals and democrats obviously don’t respect minorities? i respect minorities… i know plenty of liberals and democrats who do… i think it’s pretty obvious that most liberals and democrats respect minorities, so again, cut the crap.

    “Every time a liberal Democrat talks to minorities all they say is ooohhh watch out for those racist Republicans…” yes, bing, that’s what they say every time. stop it. you’re just bullshitting. how the hell would anything get done if that’s all we had to say? fuck off.

    i applaud bush’s appointments of minorities to high positions. i just wonder about his motivations… maybe there isn’t a motivation behind it, but he’s a snarky little shit about so much other stuff…

    so, to sum up, intolerance is a conservative value, no politician should get away with racist bullshit, you throw out red herrings as examples, cut the crap, blacks are just as intolerant as whites and that’s why they vote republican (but not really that many of them), fuck off, and bush’s appointments of minorities is commendable, if fishy.

  • Bing

    MMM intolerance is a conservative value and unbelievable hypocrisy is a liberal value.

  • zingzing

    where’s the hypocrisy?

  • zingzing

    …and i’m not really saying that intolerance is a conservative value. that last paragraph is pretty sarcastic in it’s own way. it just seems that intolerance and conservatism often go hand in hand. or that intolerant people are usually conservatives.

  • Boom

    The Civil Rights movement is over. I had to pay full price for College while my good African American buddy paid half that and I had better scores on my ACTs. Its all good, we laughed about it a bunch, what can you do. Stop crying about it and let Racism die. If Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson didnt make such a big damn deal about it, and keep bringing it back up it would disappear. Blacks kill more of them selves each year then the White man ever did. Give it a rest for god sakes, the Civil rights movement worked with flying colors. I think they dont like it if they cant pretend they are the victim anymore.

  • brii brii

    bush sucks okay so zing zing u shut up =]