04 April 2008

40 Years ago: Martin Luther King assassinated

40 years ago the most important, effective and charismatic leader of the American civil rights movement died from an assassin's bullet.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (left), who had been awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of his long and peaceful work for civil and equal rights in the USA, did inspire a whole generation of Americans, regardless of their colour, and changed the social structure and politics of the United States for ever. His strong ideas and charismatic personality made him popular all around the world, and he is now regarded as one of the great men of the 20th century.

Born as Michael King, Jr. on January 15th, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, he became Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1935, when his father - a Baptist preacher - changed both his and his son's given name. His first encounter with a large crowd was in 1939, when the ten-year-old sang in a choir celebrating the Atlanta première of the famous film "Gone with the Wind".

In 1944 - aged 15 - King entered Morehouse College and after skipping two years he graduated in 1948 with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree in Sociology. The next three years he spent at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, from where he graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity (B.D.) degree in 1951.
In September of the same year he began doctoral studies in Systematic Theology at Boston University.
1953 King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and on June 5th, 1955 he received his Doctorate in Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Boston.

Soon afterwards King became known to a wider audience when he got involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. On December 1st, 1955 Rosa Parks, a black woman, was arrested for refusing to comply with US laws that required her to give up her bus seat to a white man. The black people of Montgomery felt that things had gone too far, and assisted by the trade union leader E. D. Nixon, King organised a city-wide bus boycott. It lasted for 385 days, and during that time the situation became so tense that King's house was bombed by white supremacists. King himself was also arrested during the campaign, which only ended when a US District Court ended racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses.

King was instrumental in the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, a group created to harness the moral authority and organising power of black churches to conduct non-violent protests in the service of civil rights reform. He continued to dominate the organization for the rest of his life.

King was an adherent of the philosophies of non-violent civil disobedience as described in Henry David Thoreau's essay of the same name, and used successfully in India by Mohandas K. "Mahatma" Gandhi.
King applied this philosophy to the protests organized by the SCLC. In 1958, while signing copies of his book "Strive Toward Freedom" in a Harlem store, he was stabbed in the chest with a letter opener by a deranged black woman and only narrowly escaped death.

Representing the SCLC, Martin Luther King, was among the leaders of the so-called "Big Six" civil rights organizations who were instrumental in the organization of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
President John F. Kennedy initially opposed the march, because he was concerned it would negatively impact the drive for passage of civil rights legislation. But King and the other organisers were firm that the march would proceed.

The march made several specific demands: an end to racial segregation in public school; meaningful civil rights legislation, including a law prohibiting racial discrimination in employment; protection of civil rights workers from police brutality; a $ 2 minimum wage for all workers; and self-government for the District of Columbia, then governed by a congressional committee.

Despite tensions, the march was a resounding success. More than 250,000 people of diverse ethnicities attended, sprawling from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial onto the National Mall and around the reflecting pool. At the time, it was the largest gathering of protesters in the history of the US capital. And King's by now world-famous "I Have a Dream" speech electrified the crowd. It is regarded, along with Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address", one of the finest speeches in American oratory.

Throughout his career, King wrote and spoke frequently, drawing on his experience as a preacher. His "Letter from Birmingham Jail", written in 1963, is a passionate statement of his Crusade for Justice.
On October 14th, 1964 he became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to him for leading non-violent resistance to end racial prejudice in the United States.

In 1965 King began to express serious doubts about the United States' role in Vietnam. On April 4th, 1967 - to the day exactly one year before his death - King delivered his "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" at the New York City Riverside Church. He spoke strongly against American participation in the war, insisting that the US was in Vietnam "to occupy it as an American colony" and calling the US government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." *1

He often claimed that North Vietnam "did not begin to send in any large number of supplies or men until American forces had arrived in the tens of thousands" in South Vietnam. King also praised North Vietnam's land reform. He accused the USA of having killed a million Vietnamese, "mostly children". *2

King had long been hated by many of the radical white southern segregationists, but this speech turned the more mainstream media against him as well.
TIME magazine called the speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi", and The Washington Post declared that King had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people".

On March 30th, 1968, King went to Memphis, Tennessee in support of the black public works employees, who had been on strike since March 12th for higher wages and better treatment. On April 3rd, he returned to Memphis for another rally. And as always when he visited the city, he stayed in the same place, the Lorraine Motel (pictured above right). In fact, King was such a creature of habit that he usually stayed in the very same Room - No. 306. This was no secret and common knowledge all around Memphis.

His last public speech was delivered that day at the Mason Temple, and it was later seen as somehow visionary, as if King had foreseen his own death in a recent dream. He said: "I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. 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. I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." *3

The next day, April 4th, King took some fresh air on the balcony of his motel room. According to an official report a single bullet hit him at 6.01 p.m., entering the body through the right cheek, smashing his jaw and then travelling down his spinal cord before lodging in his shoulder. Several close friends of King were present and witnessed the murder, including two well-known black preachers, civil rights campaigners and politicians who later carried on their dead friend's work. They were Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson.
King was rushed to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 7.05 p.m.

When the news of the assassination spread, there were angry demonstrations and spontaneous riots in more than 100 cities all over the USA.
In Illinois - the home state of the first assassinated President Abraham Lincoln - Senator Robert F. Kennedy was due to address a predominantly black crowd during his own campaign for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. Minutes before the speech Kennedy had heard the news and then addressed the people in an exemplary way. Speaking six minutes without a script or preparation, he spoke from the heart. The people of Illinois understood him and went home grieving and angry over the murder, but they remained peaceful. *4

Despite the fact that two months after the murder an escaped US convict - James Earl Ray - was arrested at London's Heathrow Airport and rather easily confessed to the murder, days later he retracted his statement and insisted ever since that he was not Martin Luther King's murderer. Nevertheless he was sentenced to 99 years jail and died in prison in 1998.
But there is plenty of evidence that the assassination of Martin Luther King was the result of an elaborate conspiracy, involving government agencies, along the same lines as the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

There is not enough space here to outline the whole background, but there are plenty of websites and other sources available to enlighten you further.
The latest sensational revelation came six years ago, when the New York Times reported that a church minister, Ronald Denton Wilson, claimed his father, Henry Clay Wilson - and not James Earl Ray - assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr.
Given the secretive ways of the USA and its extremely right-wing policies, it is doubtful that we will ever have a satisfactory and official explanation of what really happened.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is missed today by the decent people of this world just as much as he was missed and mourned 40 years ago. It appears that for the majority of Americans violence - including murder, war crimes, assassination and torture - is still acceptable and even "normal". As long as this is the case, things will go from bad to worse. Let me close with a word from the New Testament, which Martin Luther King knew so well: "Those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword." This will be the future of the USA, unless some drastic change for good takes place - and takes place soon.

The Emerald Islander

Footnotes:

* 1
Well, nothing has changed since, except the countries the USA occupies as modern colonies. In place of Vietnam and Cambodia they have now Iraq and Afghanistan.
* 2 This is an interesting number, especially during the late 1960s, before the interest of international organisations was drawn closely to monitor Vietnam and Cambodia. But figures from this time are difficult to verify, since the USA never even bother counting local civilian casualties. They still have the same inhumane (but very convenient for the White House) practice today in Iraq and Afghanistan.
* 3 The last sentence is a direct quote from the "Battle Hymn of the Republic", a song popular with the Union troops during the Civil War (1861-65).
* 4 Tragically 63 days later Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated himself in Los Angeles. It appears that even after two centuries as a sovereign nation the USA were still struggling to join the civilised world, where open murder and political assassinations do simply not happen. Sadly, the conditions in the United States today are much worse than they were in 1968, although now most leading politicians are guarded and protected so massively that it is near to impossible for ordinary people to meet them.

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