The Second Assassination of MLKRoundup
tags: racism, civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr.
Ibram X. Kendi is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and the director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. He is the author of several books, including the National Book Award–winning Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and How to Be an Antiracist.
Early on the evening of October 23, 2019, I took a tour of the Lorraine Motel. I’d been to Memphis, Tennessee, several times before, and I’d come back to speak at the National Civil Rights Museum, which encompasses the motel. But until that October, I’d never been able to bring myself to visit the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
I saw what King saw moments before he saw no more. His second-floor room had been preserved. Walking into there was like walking into 1968. I saw the antique dishes from the motel’s kitchen. I saw two beds: one for King, unmade, and one for his friend Ralph Abernathy. On April 4, 1968, King had been feeling under the weather.
The night before he was killed, King addressed striking Black sanitation workers in Memphis. “If something isn’t done, and in a hurry,” he said, “to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.”
I walked out of Room 306, as King did, around 6 p.m. From the balcony, I looked down on a white 1959 Dodge Royal and a white 1968 Cadillac. King looked down to talk with some friends in the parking lot. He turned to walk back into his room. A bullet smashed into his neck. I stood on the concrete square where King’s life fell. I looked to where King’s associates pointed in the sniper’s direction.
I did not say anything during the tour. A guide spoke, but I couldn’t hear him. My silence kept screaming in my solemnness. I would grieve in silence (and later in words).
The second assassination of King began days after the first assassination. Almost a third of Americans polled in April 1968 felt that King himself was to blame for his assassination, felt that he had “brought it on himself.” When King was killed, he was one of the most hated people in the United States. Nearly half of Black Americans and three-quarters of white Americans disapproved of him when he stepped out onto that motel balcony. Death threats were a fact of his life.
King’s first assassins professed to hate him half a century ago. His second assassins profess to revere him. Death threats to King’s legacy are now sold as love songs to his legacy. King is adored in death, literally. King is still hated in life.
Take the small Ohio crowd that gathered for a political rally last month. A white woman held a sign that read educate don’t indoctrinate. Another sign said save the division for math class. Another person held a large poster of King.
Josh Mandel, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, spoke to the crowd. “What the liberals are doing by advancing the cause of critical race theory—they are stomping on the grave of Martin Luther King,” said Mandel, whose internal poll shows him leading the Republican primary race.
“Martin Luther King once said that he had a dream that his grandkids would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” Mandel added. “But what you have going on in the government schools by these liberals and the media, by the secular left, by the radical left, they’re trying to make everything about skin color.”
The sniper shots aimed at King’s body of work sound this way almost every time. His modern-day assassins endlessly recite King’s “dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”—as if that was all King said during his 1963 March on Washington speech. They disregard the lines before and after it, when King lamented that his dream was being thwarted by “vicious racists” in places “sweltering with the heat of oppression.” They disregard King’s paraphrase of his iconic “dream” line in 1965: that “one day all of God’s Black children will be respected like his white children.” They disregard King’s recognition that the civil-rights movement did not end racism, leading him to tell an NBC News correspondent on May 8, 1967, that the “dream that I had [in 1963] has at many points turned into a nightmare.” (Ironically, it was this nightmare of post-civil-rights racial inequality that caused legal scholars in the 1970s to develop critical race theory in law schools, particularly to study and reveal the law’s role in the maintenance of inequality.)
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