The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Washington, D.C. Photo by Ron Cogswell.
I was 10 years old when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, exactly 50 years ago tonight.
I remember the news bulletins breaking into whatever I was watching on television that evening. Most of the nation was immediately plunged into shock and mourning, but the reaction in my white, working-class family’s apartment in the Bronx was a little different.
I knew King’s name, probably because I often looked at the New York Daily News that my father brought home from work every evening. Such coverage as there was of King did not tend to be especially flattering. The fight for racial justice in this country took a distant second to the reporting of the Vietnam War that King had come to oppose, along with New York’s rising crime and deteriorating services, and the spread of urban unrest that had gutted Detroit and Newark the previous summer.
So the night of King’s assassination, what I sensed from my parents was mainly anxiety. They did not talk about the civil rights movement and the landmark legislation that had passed a few years earlier after King led the famous march on Washington. Instead, there was quite a bit of concern, and not just in my household, that violence could break out in our racially mixed neighborhood. I was in fifth grade, and I usually walked my little brother home after school while both my parents were at work. I remember my mother being worried about what would happen the next day. But nothing much happened except that I got a different perspective from my teacher about what King had meant to our country.
In the wake of the recent school shootings and the protests they have evoked, much has been made about our country’s recent proclivity toward violence. Yet I can’t think of a time in American history when we were not violent. The forms of aggression change, but the fact of aggression does not.
Even now, at a time when street crime is at a relative national trough, far more people will die in individual criminal shootings than in mass violence at school or some other public place. And crime was much worse a couple of decades ago. Before the crime rate rose in the 1970s and ‘80s, we had the spate of political shootings: John F. Kennedy, King, Robert F. Kennedy. There were high-profile assassination attempts, too: Alabama’s Gov. George Wallace (who was wounded); Gerald Ford (twice, though he was not injured either time); and Ronald Reagan (also wounded). King, RFK and George Wallace were all shot in the same year, 1968. People often leave Wallace off the list of assassination targets because of his racist record, but the shooting was still an expression of political violence.
Before those killings, and overlapping JFK’s presidency, we had the violence against civil rights demonstrators. Churches were bombed; freedom riders and civil rights workers were abducted and murdered. And there were the lynchings – during the civil rights movement and for decades before, stretching all the way back to the aftermath of the Civil War. There was the Civil War itself. And before that, slavery.
King stands out in our history because he was so adamant that true justice and effective change could be brought about only by nonviolent persuasion. He did not seek to silence his opponents; he merely sought to give them a chance to let their best instincts triumph over their worst. It is a slow and halting process, and there was a lot of impatience with it. King had an uphill fight on his hands. Somehow, in less than four decades of life, he accumulated enough wisdom to know that he was unlikely to personally see the process through to a successful end. But it did not stop him from trying.
Some of us grow slowly, but most of us do eventually grow. Efforts to honor King’s legacy with a national holiday began within days of his death, but it took 15 years before President Reagan signed a bill into law to create a federal holiday. States did not all follow suit for years after that; it took until 2000 for every state to observe MLK Day. The majority of private businesses still do not have an employee holiday on the day that commemorates King and his legacy. Some of it is for need – people still expect to get groceries, drop off children at day care and receive hospital care on that day – but some is simply inertia.
I should know; it took me some time to catch on. I did not have a paid employee on staff on the national MLK holiday until 1996. That year, we did not take a holiday. I did not get around to adding an extra day off to our schedule until 2002. That was later than it should have been. If I had it to do over again, I would do it differently.
Past mistakes are not corrected by going backward, however. We redress them by changing the way we move forward. Today, it is a rare 10-year-old in America who does not know what Martin Luther King Jr. did in his lifetime. That was not true for me at 10, even though I was alive when King made his most famous speeches. So today, we can remember the night he died by acknowledging how he raised the standard by which we try to live.