In 1968, The Atlantic barely mentioned Martin Luther King’s assassination, which happened fifty years ago today. Five years earlier, the magazine had published King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” but given the impact he was having on the country, he was remarkably absent from our pages. To mark the 50th anniversary of his death, Atlantic staff writer Vann Newkirk II and managing editor Adrienne Green proposed a special issue of The Atlantic, and then worked with the magazine team to produce it over most of a year. If you haven’t already received your copy in the mail, it’s on its way; meanwhile, much of the coverage from the issue has been published on our website here, along with more essays and reflections on King’s life, death, and legacy. Today, Karen Yuan talked to Vann and Adrienne about how they put the issue together, and what they discovered in making it. To close us out, I look into why King’s death went mostly unmentioned in our magazine.
“It Should Leave You Unsettled”
Karen Yuan: How did the idea for the special issue come about?
Vann Newkirk II: Around the 49th anniversary of King’s assassination, in April of 2017, I sent an email to editor-in-chief Jeff Goldberg and said, we should have somebody thinking about what we should do on King. And Jeff said, “Now we do.” Right after that, I went to our managing editor, Adrienne Green, and said, we have to be thinking about this, what should we be doing? Adrienne had the idea for a special issue.
Adrienne Green: The spirit of wanting to do this was not wanting to cast MLK in amber. He's a man who is a large part of history. But a lot of people's understanding of him is concentrated in myth. They don't talk about his complexities, they don't talk about his contradictions. They don't talk about the fact that he wasn't this glorious man in a suit. People hated him, especially in the last few years before his assassination. His life was under threat.
He was saying things that were increasingly implicating mass society and the problems that face us in the areas of poverty and racism. We wanted to do something that encompassed all of that, that didn't make him a man just solidified in history, never to be debated with again.
Vann: It was necessitated by what we had in front of us. The Atlantic is known for a legacy of coverage on race and justice. We ran the “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in The Atlantic. The big difference between this and other special issues is that we have almost no other Atlantic archival content on MLK.
Adrienne: I think that's what makes this issue so important. In our 160-year history, we boast about being present, and rightfully so, for all of these major moments in history. This was a major moment. And so, if this was going to be the thing that lives in the Atlantic archives as what we did on MLK, we wanted to make it good.
Karen: What themes did you want to to come across in this issue?
Adrienne: The issue is divided into three sections—the three evils that face society, as identified by King: racism, poverty, and militarism. What we wanted to do with this issue was make connections between his understanding of those things in 1968, and the way that these issues and these injustices are still prevalent in the present day.
Karen: The special issue includes content from the King family archive. How did you involve the King family?
Vann: I went to Morehouse College, King’s alma mater. I worked with some of the King papers’ archives when they were first brought to Morehouse, and also worked with Clay Carson, one of King's official biographers. He taught a class that I took on King. Another teacher there was Christine King Farris, King’s sister. I was like, look, do you remember me? Luckily I did well in class, and luckily I worked really hard as an archival assistant. I was able to go down to Atlanta to have a very long conversation about why we needed things. This type of opportunity with this type of content doesn't come by often.
Karen: When you were editing the issue, did you learn anything about King that surprised you?
Adrienne: I hadn't read many of the texts before we acquired them. Overall, I think we have a tendency to make King into this great man. It wasn't until I looked holistically at all of the ways that he challenged others and was challenged himself, and was a man that contained contradictions and multitudes, that I realized he was a great man, but he was also just a person grappling with the time in the same way that any other person grapples with the time that they exist in.
Karen: What’s one story about King in the issue that you think humanizes him?
Adrienne: There’s Patrick Parr’s story about King when he was in college. It’s about King making a friend and getting his hair cut by him and the two of them just chasing girls.
Karen: I love that he and his friend fought. There is such human detail in that story.
Vann: I mean, I went to Morehouse. I fought all the time.
Adrienne: You just wouldn’t think that King was rolling around fighting with his homies. But that’s what he was doing, because that's where he was at that time, and that doesn't negate that he was a great thinker and a brave man. There is also the story about Coretta Scott King and the fact that she sharpened him in a lot of ways. These stories are about MLK, but also about the relationships that he built with the people around him.
Karen: Vann, you interviewed Congressman John Lewis, an icon of the civil-rights movement who worked with King. What did you ask him?
Vann: I asked, what scares you? You've put in a lifetime's worth of work in civil rights. You're passing the baton to the next generation. Seeing Charlottesville, seeing what's happening politically in this country today, what did you build with King that you fear losing?
Another thing I was really interested in was how leaders like Lewis, leaders like King himself, were built and made. I wanted to focus on Lewis growing up as the boy from Troy, how he went from that origin to becoming a legend in the civil-rights movement and in our government. What makes an activist? That was the most important part of the Lewis interview to me.
Karen: The issue also includes interviews with voices like Jesse Williams and John Legend. What inspired you to include them in the issue?
Adrienne: I wanted to talk to them about the intersection of art and activism, as it’s playing out in our culture today. John Legend made the song “Glory” that was featured in the 2014 film Selma, which was about Martin Luther King. Jesse Williams gave that speech at the BET Awards about black people’s contributions to society, and feeling like we've been “floating this country on credit” forever. It’s an essence of Martin Luther King's “I Have A Dream” speech, that we've given so much, and still are asked to wait for justice. Jesse said, we, as storytellers, are gatekeepers, but we're also the people who reflect society, and we get to give voice to what we think is worthwhile.
Karen: How do you want a reader to feel, reading this issue?
Vann: I want you to be challenged. Even if you quote King every day, even if you work for the NAACP, I want you to walk away from every piece with something that challenges your current understanding of what King thought, who he was, and what made him. And also what America is. We cite the “Letter From Birmingham Jail” a lot, but not all people actually read what he says in there about white moderates. Lots of people today forget that, when he talked about militarism in some of his pieces, he’s not just against unjust war. He’s against state violence. If you read the whole thing cover to cover, it should leave you unsettled.
Why Didn’t The Atlantic Cover Martin Luther King’s Assassination?
In last week’s episode of Radio Atlantic, our boss, Jeffrey Goldberg, gave the staff an assignment. “Get on the phone and find some old editors,” he said, and figure out why The Atlantic—a magazine founded by abolitionists—barely covered King’s assassination.
I didn’t have much luck finding answers. Many Atlantic staffers from the civil-rights era have passed away, including editor-in-chief Robert Manning. The only Atlantic employee from that period I managed to contact, Elizabeth Drew, who was a staff writer at the time, said only that she has “no idea.” Failing to land on one definitive explanation, I asked a few people who currently work at The Atlantic—Annika Neklason, our archives editor, Jim Fallows, longtime national correspondent, and Vann Newkirk and Adrienne Green—for their theories. None of them know the answer, either, but spoke about some patterns in our coverage that could partially explain the absence.
In the 1950s and 60s, “The Atlantic wasn’t covering politics in the way we were at the beginning of our magazine,” said Annika. Instead, the editors seemed to be focused on publishing important literary works by big names, like Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jack Kerouac. But Vann pointed out that other predominantly-white, northeastern literary magazines like Harper’s and The New Republic—our competitors at the time—didn’t shy away from covering King’s assassination and the civil-rights movement. “They did a better job than we did,” he said.
The staff was small and lead times were long. At a time long before the internet, Jim wrote in an email, the lead time for magazines—the period between when the issue is finalized and when it goes to print—was even longer than it is now. Because everything had to be planned out three to four months in advance, Jim said, it would have been difficult to cover King’s assassination. In the months immediately following King’s death, The Atlantic covered topics like Lyndon B. Johnson’s role in the Vietnam War, and the failings of presidential commissions. By the time editors got around to an isolated event like an assassination, it would have been old news. But that still doesn’t explain why The Atlantic didn’t cover the ramifications of King’s death, and other aspects of his legacy.
A lot happened in 1968. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to recognize the relative importance of Martin Luther King’s assassination. “You’d never be able to walk up to someone in 2018 and tell them that Martin Luther King wasn’t a huge influence, or that the civil-rights movement didn’t radically shift American culture,” Adrienne told me. It’s obvious. “I don’t know how much of that hindsight existed in the 70s. It should have, but that doesn’t mean it did.”
The Atlantic reflected the attitudes of the time. While The Atlantic was created as an abolitionist magazine, that identity, Vann said, doesn't necessarily mean all its writing, throughout its 160-year history, has upheld its original mission. For example, while The Atlantic advocated fairly consistently for black equality before the turn of the 20th century, in the 1920s, Annika said, “that really drops off,” giving way to a series of racist pieces on eugenics, and the biological basis for racial differences. During the civil-rights movement, Annika told me, The Atlantic had a complicated history covering race. The magazine published King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963, and a retrospective piece on the Freedom Rides in 1968, but also avoided subjects like sharecropping and lynching. The Atlantic did not extensively cover the Selma to Montgomery marches or the March on Washington. The title originally given to our excerpt of King’s letter—“The Negro Is Your Brother”—reinforces the idea that Annika was left with, reading through Atlantic coverage from the civil-rights era. “It was powerful white people writing for mostly white audiences.”
Today’s Wrap Up
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