Martin Luther King, Jr.: A New View of the Man & His Times
By: J. Marlando
Younger people black and white do not grasp the Martin Luther King or the society of the 1960s. Indeed, the 1960s were probably the most complex era in U.S. history.
I was in the U.S. Army when Martin Luther made his famous “I have a dream” speech in 1961, something I paid little attention to at the time. After all, as a white, twenty-two year old I reflected much of the white prospective of what were called back then, the Negro people. In the world I grew up in blacks were “over there” and whites were “over here” and that was how it was and how it was always going to be.
I was born and raised in a mixed, extremely poor neighborhood. My family talked to our black neighbors across the fence but we never visited in each other’s houses; there was a definite distance between black and white people at the time. And, even the poorest of “white trash,” felt smarter and better than the black folk who were considered not only second rate citizens but second rated human beings. In fact, the last known lynching had occurred in 1952 not even a decade before Martin Luther King’s entrance into the public eye.
Before the 1960s black people were seen in motion pictures primarily in a stereotypical way of being dependent on whites or, in the least, being subservient to them. Indeed, one of the United States earliest movies was “Birth of a Nation” that not only advocated white supremacy turned members of the Ku Klux Klan into heroes. This was in 1915 but it nevertheless captured the underlying prejudice against blacks in the country by most whites.
Blacks in fact,--there were a few exceptions—had been given the most menial work ever since the Civil War ended—as a race. By and large they swept floors, operated elevators, washed dishes, were nannies and servants, shoe shine “boys” and so forth and so were kept at the lowest paying jobs there were. All this was extremely negative but the very sad part of all this is that little, black children were raised by a society that told them they were secondary and basically of no value; social outcasts and unwanted. As a result of all this, the black attitude was corrupted by a virtual world of white supremacists by any other name.
I had been born in Colorado Springs so I was not raised with the extreme racial prejudice that persisted in other parts of the country, yet I cannot deny that there was prejudice. As a kid, for example, black people could not eat at counters with white folks and had to enter restaurants through the backdoor or kitchen door but it was even more belittling to blacks in the southern states. I remember being in El Paso, Texas in the mid-1950s and seeing drinking fountainssegregated. That served as a kind of cultural shock for me as it was so brutally, heartless.
But heartlessness belonged to racial segregation. For example, a beautiful, young blues singer, Bessie Smithgot into a car accident outside Memphis, Tennessee in 1937. She unnecessarily died from her injuries because the hospital would not accept blacks. She was only 26 years old!
By the time I was out of the Army in 1964, I moved to Pasadena, California where I attended the famed, Pasadena Playhouse. This was the year that the Vietnam War heated up through a presidential lie to the American people; when the population of the hippies emerged in vast numbers and the Beatles came to America; the year of the first major race riot and ironically the year that the Civil Rights Act passed.
This article will attempt to capture the story of Martin Luther King and “his” America during those years of radicalism and rage; of cultural challenge and corruption. I will make this historic view as brief as I possibly can which means I will have to choose what to write and so what not to include in this paper. I hope that those choices work in covering the events and emotions of those times accurately and objectively honest as possible.
Martin Luther King had been working on his education since graduating from a segregated high school at age fifteen which led him to Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and finally to achieving his doctorate at Boston University in 1955.
Ironically, this was the same year that daring Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. She was riding home from work and the place was Montgomery, Alabama.
After a “good-old-boy-white-man” insisted she give him her seat but and she refused the police were called and Rosa was arrested and jailed. Blacks until then were legally bound to sit at the back of the bus but this indignant, young, black heroine had not been willing to subordinate to the law or even to tradition—she was sick and tired of being treated with such disrespect.
By this time Martin Luther had moved to Montgomery and was practicing his early ministry there. He was 27 years old at the time.
At this time the blacks of Montgomery were calling massive meetings with a calling to boycott all city buses which they did. Dr. King was an outspoken leader of the boycott among other leaders who were arrested and jailed. Some supremacist fired a shot gun through Dr. King’s front door; bombs were set off in four black churches and finally his own home was bombed. None of this stopped the black insurgency and a year later the Supreme Court outlawed segregation on Montgomery’s bus lines.
This was the first crack in the historic egg that would soon enough emerge full fledges rebellions creating the 1960s as a time of challenge and change; the earliest unfolding of a system that would one day permit a black man to become its country’s president, a futuristic reality that, at the time, neither blacks nor whites imagined as ever becoming a reality but especially in the foreseeable future.
A Moment to Rediscover Martin Luther King
I recall sitting in a local coffee shop called Quinn’s West with a group of my intellectual or would-be intellectual friends talking about politics, the Vietnam War, Hippies and art when Martin Luther King’s name was finally brought up. I didn’t know much about the man at that time so I was open to believe my friends’ opinions. “King is nothing but a commie,” someone said. “Yea!” another agreed. The jest of the conversation was that King was anti-American and that’s all there was to it. At age 25, I simply accepted that without thinking much about it. However, later when Dr. King’s name came up again, I announced something like, “Yes, but he’s nothing but a damned communist anyway.” This is exactly how rumors and social memes are invented and I had fallen into such trappings.
In actuality, Dr. King was preaching Americanism as it was intended—freedom, justice and equality…for all!
Indeed, he kept telling his listeners that the bus boycott was about much more than where people could and couldn’t sit on buses but about things that “go deep down into the archives of history.
He said: “We have known humiliation, we have known abusive language. We have been plunged into the abyss of oppression. And we decided to rise up only with the weapon of protest. It is one of the greatest glories of America that we have the right to protest.
“If we are arrested every day, if we are exploited every day, if we are trampled over every day, don’t let anyone pull you down so low as to hate them. We must use the weapon of love. We must have compassion and understanding of those who hate us. We must realize so many people are taught to hate us that they are not totally responsible for their hate. But we stand in life at midnight. We are always on the threshold of a new dawn.”
In regard to the above, we keep hearing all these pious groups hollering out that “we are a Christian nation” but here was a man who was mirroring the Jesus view and hated for it; called a commie and all sorts of other names for it; he was indeed an ultimate Christian who would eventually be assassinated for it!
A Touch of Life in the Mid-Sixties
The U.S. went on the offensive in Vietnam in 1965 and I was grateful to have my service days behind me. Nearly 60,000 Americans lost theirlives and to this day there has never been a clear explanation why we were fighting there. The old warring indoctrinations of protecting the world from communism and freeing the people no longer hold.
President Kennedy beloved especially by younger Americans, had been assassinated in 1963, said to be murdered by a lone gunman by the name of Lee Harvey Oswald but a mystery still surrounds the killing to this day—the suspects include, the Mafia, a Castro plot and our own CIA. Oswald was quickly slain no doubt to keep him from talking.
Lyndon Baines Johnsonhad been vice president and was reelected to office in 1964. This was the year that he pledged to create the Great Society. This would include programs to aid America’s poor and to create a national health plan. During the 1930s he worked with President F. D. Roosevelt on similar programs and no doubt wanted to renew ideas of that president’s New Deal. In any case, while Johnson was justifying widening the war effort, Martin Luther King was centered in another kind of warring. That is, he was
deeply involved in winning the right for black people to vote. Theorhetically they already had the vote since 1870 but especially the Southern black person faced beatings and even hangings for entering the voting booths. And so, on March 25 of 1965, around twenty-five thousand non-violent marchers on a 54-mile march from Salma to Montgomery, Alabama.
There were white people among the black demonstrators who listened to King’s speech that day. He said: “There never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes.”
Martin Luther King was in Alabama so his close colleagues led the march out of Selma but were greeted by local law enforcement headed by Sheriff Jim Clark. Nevertheless, 600 continued through Selma and began crossing Edmund Pettus Bridge where they were greeted with a blockade of local lawmen and state troopers.
The marchers were ordered to disperse and when they didn’t they were viciously attacked with gas and clubs.The event hit the national news and was called, “Bloody Sunday.”
In spite of the danger, Dr. King decided to retry the march again two days later but a federal District Judge, Frank M. Johnson, issued a restraining order to delay the attempt until, it was said, President Johnson could send troops in to protect the marchers. Soon after that the President promised to introduce a voting rights bill to congress within a few days.
Finally the federally sanctioned march left Selma on the 21st of March with the marchers protected by hundreds of Alabama National Guard and FBI agents. They covered between 7 and 17 miles per day, camping at night in the yards of people supporting them and were entertained by super stars such as Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne. There were only around 300 to begin with but by the time they reached Alabama’s capital the count has escalated to 25,000 demonstrators. The then Governor Wallace refused to respond. Nevertheless, in August of ’65, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.
Not all black folks were peace lovers, however.
Riots and The Ruins of Watts
I was stringing (writing) for the old Harold Examiner newspaper in 1965. I had graduated in the spring of 1965 and was wondering what the future would hold. This was the year that Ed White took America’s first spacewalkJohnson was still working diligently on sheltering the nation’s poor…Vietnam continued to be very hot…the hippies kept protesting…and then came Watts. What happened was that a 21 year old black man was arrested for drunk driving and the police ordered both he and his brother out of the car. Evidently, the traffic stop was near the home of the brothers because while the one was being arrested, the other went to the house for their mother. Their mother responded to seeing her son arrested and attacked the policemen, tearing one of their shirts open—during the scuffle, an officer struck the driver over the head with his nightstick and the three were arrested.
In the meantime, hundreds of onlookers had gathered and watched the entire ordeal. Quite suddenly there was talk swirling through the crown about prejudice, white supremacist cops and hatred for the entire system; the black community in Southern L.A. was ready to war.
The riots began with some of Watt’s residents stoning cars driven by white people and soon enough pockets of indignant blacks were pulling white people driving in the area out of their cars and beating them. These acts quickly escalated into setting fire to businesses and factories in the area Looting, gunning down fireman and other violence followed. In the end, there were 34 deaths,1,000 injuries and 4,000 arrests. It was thought by many authorities that the local Black Muslims in the area had been intrinsic in starting the riots by preaching violence against whites.
During the outbreak of the riots Martin Luther King was in Puerto Rico but flew into L.A. as soon as he could. By then the violence was nearly all under control and even the curfew had been lifted when he arrived.
During Dr. King’s stay in Los Angeles he talked to a great many Watt’s residents, many who argued for armed insurrection while others believed the only way they would be listened to was to riot. The black people, with fewexceptions, had been holding back outrage for years and so the riot had been a release for them—even those who didn’t participate had felt a kind of relief of their deep rooted anxiety.
Martin Luther King suggested that the problems that led to the violence were “environmental and not racial” as in the South. He said, “The economic deprivation, social isolation, inadequate housing, and general despair of thousands of Negroes teaming in in Northern and Western ghettos are the ready seeds which give birth to the tragic expressions of violence.”
As a quick aside, I am compelled to say that I absolutely agree with those observations: The general middle class view of those living in ghettos is that they are ghettos because they are inhabited by losers, boozers and dopers. While there is a portion of people who would fit the description, there are those who would also fit the same description in every area no matter how rich or poor. It is simply easier to blame the people for their own misfortunes but the system MUST take their share of the responsibilities for stark poverty in America. Indeed, the ghettoitself is a result of social and political neglect and not a rank of the lazy and worthless.
Sometime after the Watts’ riot, Dr. King wrote an article for the Saturday Review. He offered that Los Angeles should have anticipated the rioting since the unemployment rate in 1965 was higher than the depression levels of the 1930s.
Not long after the riots, as a reporter, I made a connection to meet with two major instigators of the violence. It was somewhat like being in a spy movie. I was told that the two then fugitives would meet with me but only in an outside restaurant, with plenty of escape routes. I agreed and that’s exactly what we did.
The two black men were young—probably in their mid-twenties—obviously resentful and steaming with inner-hate and anger. They told me that “if you think this summer was hot, wait until next year.
The other agreed. He said, “We are first going to kill off all black people still acting like Negroes. Then we’re going to kill all the Jews and after that the whites. And we’re going to kIll and kill and keep killing ‘til we get what we want.”
I asked the question any other reporter would have asked. “What exactly is it that you want?”
And I quote the answer. He replied, “We ain’t sayin’ ‘til we gets it.”
They didn’t know. they wanted change, they wanted better conditions, more equality and jobs but the two violent, angry men who I sat with that day (and who had been instrumental in starting the riots) simply didn’t have a goal that they could articulate—they were, in a term, just damned mad.
Black Power and other Happenings
In 1966 Stokely Carmichaelcoined the term “Black Power.” In this same year another race riot broke out in Atlanta with militant, young black people attacking cars driven by white people and police vehicles; they broke windows, looted and defied the law until they were subdued by tear gas. Carmichael had been arrested for inciting the riot. Again Martin Luther was there and criticized the violence. After Atlanta Dr. King was in Chicago leading a march for better housing for poor people under the protection of National Guard.
During this march and defying the guards groups of white protestors threw bottles and rocks at the marchers calling out “tar and feather them,” “Kill them” and other insults packed with racial hatred. Soon enough there was rioting in Chicago with another surge of burning and looting.
In the following year, 1967, the worst race riot in U.S. history occurred in Detroit.There is little doubt that Black Power advocates inspired the violence that ended up with 38 dead and $500 million dollars in damages. Detroit’s Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh said, “It looks like Berlin in 1945.”
Ironically, in this same year the Summer of Love Festival centered in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San FranciscoThere were somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 participants of young flower children and hippies. This was actually the first time that the counter-culture gathered as an effective society. Their major slogans were, “Make Love Not War” and the Timothy Leary inspired, “Turn on, Tune in and Drop Out.”
The swarms of hippies were primarily white but some blacks and other races were present for the movement that was in direct contrast to the black power movement. The hippies were preaching peace and love while the others were advocating vengeances and violence. Martin Luther King was basically respected by the black warriors of the times but loved and adored by the flower children/hippies that saw him as a peace-maker.
It is actually difficult to analyze the popular feelings and thoughts about Dr. King. While there were exceptions it can be said that most white people saw him as just one more black preacher if not a socialist. I suspect that the black community was divided. Certainly the advocates of violence and Black Power rejected Dr. King’s messages of love, peace; tolerance and understanding while the average black person honored and loved the man for his views and willingness to stand up and state them openly. After all, he worked for equality and sang out for freedom and justice for all. Some of the most beautiful words of times were spoke by King from the Lincoln Memorial to an audience of some 200,000 people. He said: “I still have a dream. It is a dream chiefly rooted in the American Dream. I have a dream that one day that this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” and where his people would be free at last.
The historic truth is that America has never lived up to its truly beautiful ideals of justice or freedom. Even the right to the pursuit of happiness has been corrupted time and time again. This is well realized by authority just as racial prejudice had always been well realized by authority but the rhetoric continues in the wake of the statism and elitism that has prevailed from almost the beginning. In any case, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. He was only 38 years old.
Dr. King had been in Memphis, Tennessee helping to organize a strike by garbage collectors there. On April 4th of 1968, he and Jesse Jackson stood on the balcony of Dr. King’s motel when a shot from a high-powered rifle murdered him. A white man by the name of James Ray was later arrested at the London airport for the slaying. He was found guilty and sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Just as in the case of President Jack Kennedy’s assassination, Martin Luther King’s assassination was also placed under scrutiny and suspicion by the public even though the case against the assailant was said to be conclusive.
I doubt very much that James Earl Ray, a man who had been in trouble for petty crimes much of his life and who never kept jobs for very long, had the mind or the funds to plan an elaborate escape to England after shooting Dr. King with a 30.06 rifle from a rooming house window. My guess—and it’s only a guess—is that wealthy and/or important people of the white upper crust either hired Ray to do the shooting or set him up to be the fall guy. In fact, Ray had said that he “had nothing to do with the killing.” Yes, his fingerprints were found on the rifle but the ballistics has been questioned since the scope is said to be wrong and the angle of the shot nearly impossible to justify accuracy over 200 feet away.
We will probably never know the whole truth. We do know that J. Edger Hoover despised Dr. King and, truth told, had his own racial prejudices so we can safely assume he had no real interest in seeking the truth or arresting any good-old-boys who might have been involved. But also, as a 1976 Senate Report stated, the FBI tried, “to destroy Martin Luther King,” which is also something we all might think about.
As another quick aside, Hoover kept 6.8 million files and 55 million index cards on private American citizens so we can imagingthat James Earl Ray, a known thief, would have been among them.
We might shudder to think how many files the FBI keeps on private citizens in our own times.
Dr. King’s followers went on a rampage upon hearing about the killing. Rioting not only broke out in Memphis but in 124 cities across the Nation. In the midst of all the rioting Dr. King was buried in Atlanta, Georgia after a nationally televised funeral march through the city. It had taken 68,000 soldiers to quiet the national mobocracy that killed five whites and 40 blacks, causing 20,000 arrests (countrywide) in the post-death riots that eventually did over $45 million in property damage.
The Black Panthers, formed in California in 1966 by Huey Percy Newton and Bobby Sealetook most of the public forefront after Dr. King’s death. Indeed, they had always believed that Martin Luther King’s non-violent campaign and love marketing had failed. These two and their followers want a “revolutionary war” and deemed violence as a way of “making things happen.”
Even in the face of such gangland tactics life slowly returned to “normal.” In the following year American landed the first human being on the moon, which gave most Americans a feeling of pride and cohesiveness. The massive rock concert at Woodstock occurred in that same year attracted 400,000 thousand hippies; a counter-culture that had actually made some positive changes in the mainstream…worldwide! Then in January, the first month of 1973, the Vietnam War was officially ended.
The terrible riots, the hatefulness and turmoil began to fade into the past and the flower children/hippies went away as quickly as they had arrived. Civil Rights and Equal Rights had certainly made some gains but racial prejudice from all corners still persist if not in the open than in the shadows of the mind. After 10,000 to 15,000 years of so-called civilization we have yet to learn how to live with one another as a cooperative, loving species—Dr. King told us how, just as Gandhi, Jesus and wise men in ancient times have told us how and while we have all heard them we have never really listened.