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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Martin Luther King, le rêve assassiné

by Roger Martin

Martin Luther King: the Death of the Dream

Translated Thursday 26 April 2018, by Jane Swingler

On 4 April 1968, the leading light of the civil rights movement was gunned down. Fifty years later, the emancipation of Black Americans continues to dominate the news.

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Nowadays, it seems he will forever be remembered as the pacifist minister of the march on Washington on 28 August 1963 and the orator of “I have a dream…”.

He was, certainly, both of these. But he was also a champion of civil disobedience, inspired by Thoreau and Gandhi. And, from an early age, living in a segregationist America, his faith, like that of his father and grandfathers, one of whom was listed as ‘communist’ in FBI dossiers, was closely linked to a thirst for justice and equality.

At 20, he openly committed to the struggle; by the time he was 24, he was given a ministry in Montgomery, Alabama, where racial violence and persecution were widespread. In the following year, after Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white man – a premeditated militant act, contrary to what was generally written – the bus boycott campaign made him a national figure. In 1957, he founded The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a pacifist organisation open also to whites. In the South, he organised marches, sit-ins and electoral registration, kindling hope in the black population and stirring up the hatred of the Ku Klux Klan and the authorities. Police baton charges, water cannons, attack dogs, assaults and bombings were daily fare for the militants, who were arrested and thrown in prison; some were killed.

His talent as a speaker made him into “the new Messiah”

Within a decade, King became the symbol of the struggle for civil rights. His ability as an organiser, his refusal to back down in the face of aggression, and his talent as a speaker made him “the new Messiah”. He was received by the Pope and honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, but this recognition earned him the hostility of those in power, the FBI, the CIA, and the Army. Hoover, the most powerful man in America, expressed a ferocious personal hatred towards him. Openly accused of being a Communist, King was constantly spied on. His home, campaign premises, hotel rooms, churches and universities where he spoke were all placed under surveillance, and the SCLC was infiltrated at the highest level.

Contrary to widespread belief, King did not unite everyone. Tired of non-violence, many activists chose more radical movements, aligning themselves with Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power, Ron Karenga’s US organisation, or the Black Panthers. However, his strongest opposition came from moderate black groups, particularly the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), whose president, Roy Wilkins, even repeated the accusations of communism instigated by Hoover.

After a period of positive moves forward, with the civic laws in 1964 and 1965 banning segregation and granting black people the right to vote, progress faltered. The question of equality continued to be raised. There was still much to do in terms of education, housing and working conditions. And the hard-won right to vote was thwarted in the Southern States by administrative subterfuge and the acts of terror practised by the Ku Klux Klan, with the support of the authorities.

Scenes of Civil War Ignite the US

At the same time, the escalating involvement in Vietnam and the exponential growth of military expenditure precluded any social strategy. Black and Indian minorities and poor white people were specifically affected by this. Martin Luther King understood that the role of his organisation could no longer be limited to a uniquely “racial” platform. On 4 April 1967, his speech at Riverside Church in New York conveyed the profound changes affecting his movement and reflecting the feelings of a growing number of black people. He made a clear call for the need to join the struggle of young white people refusing the Vietnam War and becoming radicalised with that of marginalised minorities. His call for "a poor people’s march on Washington”, five years after the success of the march in August 1963, resounded like a clap of thunder, a clear threat to those in power.

More than ever before, King was the “communist”. Roy Wilkins and other leaders branded his Riverside speech as “Radio Hanoi propaganda”, and Southern Republicans and Democrats demanded that the march be banned and King arrested. Hoover employed more and more dirty tricks – threats, anonymous letters, bullying and blackmail – to discredit him.

King became “Public Enemy No 1”. A sense of hysteria overtook the country. On 4 April 1968, a year after Riverside, King was assassinated in truly unbelievable circumstances, and scenes of civil war ignited the US.

Fifty years later, while 60% of Americans continue to doubt the official account of his death, the situation for Black Americans continues to be a problem, but across the country a new generation is emerging, committed to taking on the fight.

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