Soldiers patrol riot-torn Chicago.
Three days after King is murdered in Memphis, soldiers patrol riot-torn Chicago. (Paul Sequeira / Getty)

The Whitewashing of King’s Assassination

The death of Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t a galvanizing event, but the premature end of a movement that had only just begun.

Editor’s Note: Read The Atlantic’s special coverage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.

Image Above: Three days after King is murdered in Memphis, soldiers patrol riot-torn Chicago.

“Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them.” Jesus’s rebuke to the Pharisees descended upon me on a cold January morning in 2017, in West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C. On that Monday, the national holiday dedicated to the man at whose memorial I stood, the capital bustled in anticipation of a more pressing political event. That’s why I was at the park, pondering this granite stone of hope, carved out of a mountain of despair. The memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. cast its shadow over me, its presence just as conflicted as those tombs.

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As sure as Jesus’s words proved prescient about the adoption of Christianity in the empire that killed him, so too the modern-day legend of King writes itself in real time. In the official story told to children, King’s assassination is the transformational tragedy in a victorious struggle to overcome. But in the true accounting, his assassination was one of a host of reactionary assaults by a country against a revolution. And those assaults were astonishingly successful.

Revisiting those assaults requires a walk through the pandemonium of the last years of King’s life. There is perhaps no better Virgil for this task than James Baldwin, a man with close friends in every ideological corner of the civil-rights movement. Among them, his prophetic spirit found kinship with King—“young Martin,” Baldwin called him—whom he first met in 1957 in Atlanta.

Baldwin understood viscerally the course that King had to travel. He predicted “the dangerous road before Martin Luther King” in a 1961 article for Harper’s magazine, adding that King “has incurred … the grave responsibility of continuing to lead in the path he has encouraged so many people to follow.” Baldwin noted in the essay that King intended to lead a movement by incorporating the struggles of his constituents into the very fiber of his being, becoming in a religious sense the avatar of a people’s plight. “How he will do this I do not know,” Baldwin continued, “but I do not see how he can possibly avoid a break, at last, with the habits and attitudes, stratagems and fears of the past.”

After the Voting Rights Act was passed, in 1965, the revolution’s center of gravity shifted north, along with the stragglers of the Great Migration—toward de facto as opposed to de jure racism. Baldwin’s frequent premonitions of unrest in the streets began to come true. In his 1966 essay, “A Report From Occupied Territory,” he discussed the “powder keg” of poverty, joblessness, and discrimination in urban ghettos and warned that it “may blow up; it will be a miracle if it doesn’t.” King, by then, had sensed the same trouble brewing in the slums as Baldwin had. In his 1966 campaign against segregated housing in Chicago, which moved his strategy of nonviolent protest from the South to the North, he tried to wield his activism machine against the social and economic troubles that Baldwin described. He was repaid with violent counterprotests.

King spoke of a “white backlash”—a term he helped popularize—to his movement. But in retrospect, the strength of the reaction he predicted and endured often receives short shrift. The support of white moderates who recoiled at images of Negro children sprayed by hoses and attacked by dogs was instrumental in passing laws that ended legal segregation and protected voting rights. But by 1966, it had become clear that many of these whites chafed against further activism and greater demands for equality. They viewed the Voting Rights Act as a final concession; King saw it as a start. According to Gallup polls, King’s popularity waned in the coda years of his life; his unfavorability rating reached 63 percent in 1966. At the same time, public opinion turned firmly against the civil-rights movement.

As moderates abandoned him, King also faced a resurgence of the more virulent elements of white supremacy. The Klan firebombed the Forrest County, Mississippi, NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer to death in January 1966, and Klan night riders were suspected in the murder of the activist Clarence Triggs in Bogalusa, Louisiana, later that year. The Klan was joined by newer organizations across the United States that became emboldened in the late 1960s. The National States’ Rights Party, for one, incited a violent riot in Baltimore and spread its organizing arms beyond the South. The visibility of the American Nazi Party increased after the Voting Rights Act was passed, until its leader, George Lincoln Rockwell, was assassinated, in 1967. At King’s Chicago marches, the counterprotesters wore not the familiar hoods of Klansmen but the swastika patches of Nazis.

By 1967, resistance to further change among the white majority had ossified, and the Negro powder keg that Baldwin had mentioned had blown up—and then some. The youth and student movements that King had at times managed to corral were starting to oppose his church-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They gravitated toward the Black Power movement, black nationalism, and violent tactics. That year, the “long hot summer” brought death and destruction in Detroit and riots in at least six other major cities. An article that summer by the legendary journalist Ethel Payne in the black-owned Chicago Defender described King’s “race against time to defuse the ticking bombs of impatience in the big cities.” Two months later, King told the same newspaper, “All the signs of our time indicate that this is a dark hour in the life of America.”

The Kerner Commission, established by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration to investigate the causes of the 1967 unrest, said plainly that racism was a major factor. Its 1968 report, authored by the commissioners, who were firmly rooted in mainstream racial politics, concluded, “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” But Gallup polls showed that a majority of Americans disbelieved that conclusion, and Johnson largely ignored the report in future policy making. The false tale of victory had sprung to life. White backlash and Johnson’s rift with civil-rights leaders who wanted to push further than he did slowed the White House’s efforts.

Starting in 1966, government sabotage and obstruction had begun to have an effect on King’s campaign. Chicago’s mayor, Richard J. Daley, had secured an injunction that August limiting when and how King could protest. The next month, a major housing bill had been allowed to die in the Senate, signaling a renewed pushback in Congress against civil rights. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s fixation on King, and his attempts to discredit the civil-rights leader with salacious reports and gossip, is now well documented; reportedly, the FBI even sent him a letter with allegations about his extramarital sex life and a suggestion that he kill himself to avoid public disclosure. Also documented is the rise of cointelpro, the bureau’s program dedicated, in Hoover’s words, to “neutraliz[ing] the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations.” According to FBI documents, the program intensified its focus on King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1968, in response to his nascent Poor People’s Campaign.

By 1968, King had emerged from a series of trials with an understanding of the full breadth of white supremacy, and with no small despair at its depth. As he embarked on his Poor People’s Campaign, he braved dwindling funds, a loss of public support, and mounting desperation among the people on the margins of America. It became clear that King embodied the final seal of the eschaton—the urban apocalypse—that Baldwin had warned about.

A single bullet fired from a Remington rifle traveled through King’s spine on April 4. The revolution died with him; the country caught fire.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the atmosphere across the nation immediately following King’s death carried a whiff of the brimstone of end-times. Thousands of black youths in ghettos across more than 100 cities spilled into the streets in sorrow and rage during the Holy Week Uprising. Police arrested more than 20,000 people, and neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore saw millions of dollars in damage; estimates in Baltimore exceeded $10 million (more than $70 million today). Nationally, amid pitched battles between cops and communities, reports of sniper fire, and conflagrations that consumed business after business, at least 40 people were killed and more than 3,000 were injured in the gravest unrest in America since the Civil War.

King’s assassination was the earthquake among a series of seismic shifts that demolished a certain portion of black intellectual and spiritual movements. Baldwin had been working on a movie script about the life and assassination of his friend Malcolm X, an effort that had been fraught, owing to Baldwin’s desire to explore the deep, lingering racial questions left in the activist’s wake. King’s assassination helped derail that project, and sent many other surviving intellectuals of the civil-rights movement on trajectories that veered away from black activism. The landmark year of 1968 almost saw the death of Baldwin himself; he overdosed on sleeping pills, in what his biographer David Leeming implies was a suicide attempt.

In the immediate aftermath of King’s death, the intensity of the cataclysm became clear to all of black America. Three days after King’s murder, even as the fires across the country raged, Baldwin and King’s friend Nina Simone took to the stage at the Westbury Music Fair, on Long Island. The show had been scheduled long before, but now it had new meaning.

Simone sat down at her grand piano. “Will my country stand or fall?” she sang. “Is it too late for us all?” Her voice wavered between venom and sorrow. “And did Martin Luther King just die in vain?”

The lyrics, written by her bassist and first rehearsed with her band that afternoon, painted a picture of Simone’s own deep sorrow as well as her lamentations for the brokenness of the world. Simone paused to reflect on the recent onslaught of black deaths. “Do you realize how many we have lost?” she asked the audience.

Among the martyrs of the movement there had been George Lee, Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, four girls in Birmingham, a trio of Freedom Summer activists in Mississippi, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Wharlest Jackson, and three students at South Carolina State University. More than 120 people had been killed in race riots that broke out from the “long hot summer” through the Holy Week Uprising. W. E. B. Du Bois had died an ancient man in exile in 1963. Lorraine Hansberry had died of pancreatic cancer in 1965, and Malcolm X had been assassinated not long after. John Coltrane had died of cancer in July 1967, and Otis Redding’s plane had crashed into Lake Monona, in Wisconsin, that December.

The intensity of these losses was staggering, and King’s assassination was the knockout. After a last gasp in 1968, nonviolent resistance receded as a national change-making strategy. Baldwin chronicled the shift in an address to the World Council of Churches in July 1968, saying that leaders such as the Black Panther Party’s Stokely Carmichael had grown “weary of petitioning a heedless population, and said in effect what all revolutionaries have always said: I petitioned you and petitioned you, and you can petition for a long, long time, but the moment comes when the petitioner is no longer a petitioner but has become a beggar.”

An excerpt from James Baldwin’s speech, "White Racism or World Community," July 7, 1968 (National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America Records, 1950-2001, ARCHIVES 03-0529h, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, PA)

Even the ascendant Black Power movement, however, couldn’t withstand the might of the American status quo. In 1969, Chicago police and the FBI killed the Black Panther Party’s deputy chairman, Fred Hampton, dealing another blow to hopes for a visionary leader. The FBI’s continuing program of disruption, along with increasingly hostile public opinion among whites and the rise of “law and order” politics, had effectively destabilized the Black Power movement as a legitimate change-making force by 1970. Ever since, black activists have often been marginalized and widely discredited.

The powers that be decided they no longer wanted any part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy or those who would follow in his footsteps, and they carried out that decision with finality, through violence, sabotage, political marginalization, and public antipathy. Those powers included every agent of white hegemony, from protesters who fought against the integration of neighborhoods to police who jailed King’s compatriots for marching in the streets to politicians such as Alabama’s George Wallace, who stood in a schoolhouse doorway to stop black students from entering. King’s work had been titanic, but white supremacy proved even more so. It also proved flexible—able to accommodate changes in public opinion, the erasure of segregation from the law, and the advent of affirmative action, all without ever completely ceding power.

In a 1969 essay for The New York Times Magazine, Baldwin reflected on how that flexibility had become the hallmark of the world after King. “If white people are prepared to blow up the globe in order to maintain that faith of their fathers which placed Sambo in chains,” he wrote, “then they are certainly willing to allow him his turn on television, stage, and screen. It is a small price for white people to pay for the continuance of their domination.”

Part of that price included reconciling American values with the fact that whiteness and the state had colluded to end King and the revolution. For white America, hostility toward the civil-rights movement turned into a cherry-picked celebration of the revolution’s victories over segregation and over easily caricatured, gap-toothed bigots in the South. Embracing King became a way to rejoice in overcoming and to reify white innocence, even while ignoring the cries of those who had certainly not overcome. Accordingly, the life of King past mid-1965, a radical three years spent fighting a tide that had turned against him, is barely mentioned today.

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This selective history was cemented in the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. Reagan—it should go without saying—was about as far from King on the ideological spectrum as a politician could get; he worked to erect a new set of boundaries around urban blackness, which Baldwin had foreseen decades earlier. Reagan had bought into the whitewashed version of King, an image rehabilitated for white consumption and black mollification. In his speech announcing the holiday, Reagan mentioned King’s support for “color-blind” justice, and quoted that most quoted portion of the “I Have a Dream” speech.

But Reagan did not mention the remarks he had made as the governor of California on the day of King’s funeral, when he had spoken of “a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order and people started choosing which laws they’d break”—in effect, blaming King’s own campaign of civil disobedience for his assassination. Nor did Reagan mention that a majority of whites had felt the same way and that many of them had hated King. No mention, either, of the last three years of King’s life, other than his death.

In a 1978 retrospective article on King, Baldwin looked back at his friend’s life and at how the country had changed since his murder. “A vast amount of love and faith and passion—and blood—have gone into the attempt to transform and liberate this nation,” Baldwin wrote. “This is not the land of the free, is only very unwillingly and sporadically the home of the brave, and all that can be said for the bulk of our politicians is that, if they are no worse than they were, they are certainly no better.”

How much has changed in the 40 years since that retrospective? Have politicians improved? If King were alive today, would he bask in the glow of achievement, or would he gird himself again to march?

I pondered those questions on that January morning in Washington. Just a few days later, the manicured National Mall would be trampled by onlookers who’d come to see American democracy’s quadrennial spectacle, this time for a man who’d been endorsed by the Klan. And I considered one last question: Is this what victory looks like?

This article appears in the special MLK issue print edition with the headline “How to Kill a Revolution.”