Three new books reveal how Martin Luther King Jr has been turned into a monument, obscuring his dangerous and disruptive politicsby Colin Grant / March 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Why America May Go to Hell” was the title of a sermon that Martin Luther King, Jr expected to deliver at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Sunday 7th April 1968. But he never had the chance: James Earl Ray shot him dead on 4th April.
On hearing the news, black Americans wailed in disbelief and cursed their country. It was impossible to speak, recalled James Baldwin, “without a sense of loss and grief and rage.” In the weeks that followed, blood flowed and fires erupted. The story had gone tragically wrong: the 39-year-old preacher was supposed to be a black Moses destined to lead his people out of subjugation—not a martyred black Christ. To some, it seemed that King’s undelivered prophecy had come true: America was damned. Not only was the country selfishly indifferent to its suffering black population, but it had silenced the man who had forcefully drawn attention to that neglect.
Following the assassinations of fellow civil rights leaders Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, King knew the risks to his own life. Speaking in front of a spellbound congregation in Memphis the night before his death, he confessed that he was not afraid to die: “I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain… And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
King has been defanged
Fifty years on, King’s death reminds us of the continued racial pathology of America, built on centuries of slavery and a constitution that relegated black people to only partial citizenship. But it is also a moment to reflect on his life, and what it really meant.
In one sense, few legacies seem so secure. King’s birthday has been celebrated as a federal holiday in the US since the 1980s. The history of the civil rights movement, which is taught in every school, is also commemorated in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, a project signed off by George W Bush. King has become a kind of universal symbol—claimed by everyone as their own.