U.S. Intellectual History Blog

April 4, 1968 and American Intellectual History

Tomorrow marks the forty-eighth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The brutal culmination to a week that began with President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement that he would not seek re-election, the March 31-April 4, 1968 moment was a watershed in the history of American liberalism. The assassination of King has become a dividing line in American history, often a marker for the moment the Civil Rights Movement officially “ended.” As an intellectual historian, it is important to consider King’s death in the context of not just African American history, but also American history and transnational narratives of race and democracy.

Ideas of a “post-civil rights era” are now part of African American history. This era, one could argue, begins either with King’s assassination in 1968, or could begin as early as 1965 and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Changing narratives about what should be done for African Americans—seen in Bayard Rustin’s “From Protest to Politics” article—defined the discussion about race relations. As I wrote about recently, Albert Murray’s writings should be seen in this context. Coming to terms with the Civil Rights era, Murray (along with Ralph Ellison) attempted to forge a certain idea of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic American culture that could withstand the demands for separatism by some intellectuals and activists in the Black Power movement. The shadow of King, the absence of someone who was seen as stunningly hopeful for a better future (even if his optimism was waning by 1967), hovered over so many intellectual debates in the late 1960s and beyond.

“To imagine a Martin King surviving the electoral summer of 1968 raises plausible speculations whose promise and pain are stupefying.” This was the closing sentence of David Levering Lewis’ biography, King: A Critical Biography.[1] An interesting document in its own right due to being written so close after King’s death, King: A Critical Biography king lbjposes an expected question about King and what could have been. Ever since his death, King’s life and legacy have been debated. The American Left has attempted to keep alive the memory of King as a man firmly identifying with the downtrodden, the least among us, and as a stalwart member of the Left. Of course this election campaign has once again seen King used as a political rallying tool, with Senator Bernie Sanders pointing out his support for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s—and Representative John Lewis countering those assertions with his own well-known movement credentials.

For many African American activists, King’s legacy deserved to be honored through a national holiday for his birthday. The fight over his birthday becoming a holiday should be seen as a welcoming of MLK to America’s civil religious pantheon. King was always controversial while alive. The fact that he became such a mainstream historical icon undoubtedly gives those who embrace his late 1960s message of battling imperialism, racism, and economic injustice pause. Because, after all, this is not the King celebrated every January.

But, perhaps, it should be the King remembered every April. American intellectuals have had to deal with a King-less world since April 4, 1968. He exists as a specter over discussions of race and American democracy. And he also stands as a stark reminder of how historical figures can become different symbols to different groups, memorably showcased in books such as David Chappell’s Waking from the Dream. Living in the Age of Obama and Black Lives Matter, of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Shonda Rimes, the martyrdom of King looms as a historical marker for the beginning of recent American history.

[1] David L. Lewis. King: A Critical Biography. (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1970), p. 397.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. That teaser of contingency from Lewis is one about which I’ve never given much thought. My guess is that the near-the-end King you identify would perhaps be better remembered and hence less broadly respected, or given more of a bracketed respect. I imagine King could also have become something of a Carter-like figure, as a kind of living saint to different kinds of Democrats. Then again he might’ve made some errors later that diminished his legacy. – TL

  2. The Murray/Ellison correspondence gives hints of another way of thinking. They are amazing intellectuals both of them so different in their own ways. I once interviewed Murray who said to me, and I think elsewhere in print, “I think of myself as Odysseus, and Ellison thinks he is Doestoevsky,” You can see that difference in their writing.

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