King, 50 Years Later

The milestones of 1968 are being recalled day-by-day, reminding us of what a roller coaster year it was. The decision of LBJ not to run for re-election (cheered lustily by the left) was followed just five days later by the assassination in Memphis of Martin Luther King, on April 4—fifty years ago today.

It is hard to believe that at the beginning of 1968, things looked decent for Johnson. So much so that John Bailey, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said on January 8 that “We know who our nominees will be. I’m happy to be able to say the Republicans have all their bloody infighting to look forward to.” Cue Chicago.

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, “In a sense, he was the first American President to be toppled by a mob. No matter that it was a mob of college professors, millionaires, flower children, and Radcliffe girls.” In other words, it was the birth of today’s Democratic Party.

Here’s a portion of my narrative of King’s assassination from The Age of Reagan, vol. 1, where you can also discern the acceleration toward today’s radicalized racial politics

The euphoria on the Left over Johnson’s March 31 decision not to run for re-election was short-lived, as the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis four days later plunged the nation into gloom. King’s assassination started the 1968 riot season four months early. Rioting erupted in 125 cities in 29 states, with 46 people killed, over 2,500 injured, and 21,000 arrested. Some of the worst rioting took place in Washington DC, where Stokely Carmichael gave an impassioned speech urging black people to “get a gun, because they [whites] are coming for you.”

King’s killing at the hand of (apparently) the small time criminal James Earl Ray set off a fresh round of hand-wringing and breast-beating about the collective guilt—especially white guilt—of American society. Here was fresh evidence that America was an irredeemably sick society, just as the New Left had been saying. Benjamin Mays, emeritus president of Morehouse College (King’s alma mater), said in his eulogy at King’s funeral: “But make no mistake, the American people are in part responsible for Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. The assassin [at that point not yet apprehended] had enough condemnation of King and of Negroes to feel that he had public support.” Stokely Carmichael went further: “Bobby Kennedy pulled that trigger, just as well as anybody else.” Black militants like Carmichael who had little use for King before his death had been handed a sharp two-edged sword: they had both a martyr useful for spurring white guilt, and a new reason to reject King’s principle of nonviolent democratic reform. Washington DC civil rights leader Julius Hobson, for example, argued that “The next black man who comes into the black community preaching non-violence should be violently dealt with by the black people who hear him. The Martin Luther King concept of nonviolence died with him.”