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Friday, April 04, 2008

The MLK Assassination

Apparently, I am cliche, for it was the well-documented year 1968 that radically changed my perspective on life. And no single event had such a profound effect on me that year as the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, forty years ago. I remember it as though it were far more recent, in the way I remember the JFK and John Lennon assassinations and the Challenger disaster.

I'm pretty sure I heard the word of Martin's death from my father, who was involved in the civil rights movement in Binghamton, NY, my hometown. He went downtown to try to, as he put it, "keep it cool", and there was no notable violence in Binghamton that night.

The real effect on me came when I got hold of his speeches about why he opposed the war in Vietnam. If you had asked me in December 1967 how I felt about Vietnam, I probably would have blindly stated that I supported the war, based on the fact that it was an American war and I was an American, without much thought beyond that. Reading his April 1967 address - I'm not sure which version, for he gave similar addresses at least thrice that month - was profound in utterly changing my whole perception of not only the war, but government and my relationship to it. You can love your country yet opposed its policies. I had done that, going on civil rights marches, but that was, to some large degree, self-interest. This was something beyond my immediate surroundings.

Now, I had HEARD ABOUT the speech, and the backlash it caused, Comments such as: "Why are you talking about something other than civil rights? How can you betray Lyndon Johnson, who's been good on domestic civil rights? You're out of your element and are hurting the civil rights movement." And this came from black civil rights leaders, among others.

It wasn't until after his death, though, that I READ the speech. It was as though weights had been lifted from my eyes. Among other things, Martin HAD made the disproportionate number of drafted young black men a civil rights issue.

Read the April 4 address. Better still, listen to the April 30 address:

One sentence just jumped out at me - I think it was from the April 4 address: "The truth must be told, and I say that those who are seeking to make it appear that anyone who opposes the war in Vietnam is a fool or a traitor or an enemy of our soldiers is a person that has taken a stand against the best in our tradition." I can't help but wonder what Martin would have made of more recent wars...

Conversely, I think MLK, Jr has been largely misunderstood, perhaps intentionally so. Nonviolence did not, and does not, mean passivity. And economic justice matters; remember, King died helping sanitation workers in Memphis get a living wage. What has long bothered me about the August 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech has its misrepresentation and misapplication by certain groups. We're not going to create a level playing field for the fiscally disadvantaged because we want to be "fair"; how is it that the wealthy getting wealthier is "fair"? I have no doubt that Martin would be as concerned about the economic disparity in this country as any issue based on ethnicity.
Several articles in the past week about Rod Serling's twice-censored script about Emmett Till being read at a conference at Ithaca College. Read about it here. I've mentioned before the profound effect that Emmett Till's death had on me; in fact, along with Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery bus boycott, I think it began of the modern civil rights movement.


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