I was sitting in my elementary school classroom when the campus intercom brought word that John F. Kennedy had been cut down in Dallas. I was just waking up and coming to breakfast five years later when the Today Show informed me that Bobby had also been murdered. I was in a cab on the way to the airport when the driver mentioned that the space shuttle Challenger had just exploded. And on 9/11, I was headed to work and happened to flip on the radio, only to hear Peter Jennings' voice on what should have been a music station.
But I have no lasting memory of where I was or what I was doing when I first learned about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I understood that Dr. King's death was a major news story and I knew him to be a good man fighting on the right side of history. From my thoroughly Yankee vantage point, however, the civil rights movement was something that was happening "down there" in the South, a hopelessly backward region made up of inexplicably vicious white people and heroic, long-suffering descendants of former slaves. There was no question whose side I was on, but, as a child, I always regarded it as someone else's fight.
The fortieth anniversary of Dr. King's death is being observed with any number of stories speculating as to what might have happened had James Earl Ray misfired on that terrible spring day. What would Dr. King have done in the forty years between 1968 and 2008? How would he be regarded by succeeding generations, both black and white? What role would he have played in American life as the Movement matured, and issues of fundamental equality gave way to thornier matters involving school busing and affirmative action?
It is impossible to answer these questions, of course, with any confidence. Dr. King remains forever 39 years old in our minds, but in reality, he would have changed with the times as the rest of us did. Indeed, his lieutenants traveled in a variety of directions during subsequent years. Andrew Young and John Lewis went into politics, the former an increasingly moderate Democrat and the latter an unapologetic liberal. Jesse Jackson founded operation PUSH in Chicago, twice ran for president, and ultimately emerged as the most visible—and controversial—of the Movement's alumni. Dr. King's immediate successor, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, carried forward his mentor's cause, though with far less success, before ultimately throwing his support behind the 1980 presidential candidacy of Ronald Reagan, a man who made his first significant campaign appearance, either pointedly or obliviously, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been murdered less than twenty years earlier.
The country was changing in 1968. Dr. King recognized those changes before most other Americans did, and he was already acting in response to them at the time of his death. He understood not only that the dismantling of the Jim Crow regime represented merely the opening round in the fight for equality, but he also knew that the next steps would engender increasing white resistance, and not just in the south. Against the advice of many of his advisers, for example, Dr. King became a fierce opponent of the Vietnam War, a conflict that he accurately saw as being fought primarily by the children or poor and working class Americans.
The white backlash was already in full swing in April, 1968, though most observers had yet to notice. George Wallace of Alabama had just started to take his toxic politics north of the Mason-Dixon Line, revealing broad support beyond the boundaries of the Old Confederacy. Before the decade was out, Daniel Patrick Moynihan would pen his infamous "benign neglect" memo to Richard Nixon, urging the new president to put issues of racial justice on the back burner. Dr. King himself was the target of increasingly angry newspaper editorials, as white journalists decried his unwillingness to keep in his place and stay out of controversial issues of foreign and economic policy.
It is quite possible, therefore, that white America, convinced that various laws and court rulings had finally settled the issue of equality, would have started to tune out Dr. King as the 1960s came to an end. I suspect that my family represented much of the northern, Caucasian population, sympathetic to the civil rights cause, but seeing it far too dispassionately as something happening elsewhere. How long might it have been before the first white pundit, weary of the Movement and frightened of the implications of its nationalization, carelessly accused Dr. King of playing the "race card"?
I do not wish be misunderstood. Dr. King could never have become irrelevant. He was too bright, too charismatic, too powerful to be ignored. Certainly, Young and Lewis and, especially, Jackson have remained in the public eye for the past four decades. But like his protégés, Dr. King's image would have become more complex as his movement became more complex. And the vicious, often racist background noise about infidelity and plagiarism would have attached itself to a living man rather than an honored martyr, and Dr. King would have found himself forced to wade through the shallow celebrity culture that emerged in the 1970s and has dominated the media ever since.
I wish Dr. King were still with us, but not because I imagine that he would have ushered in some magical era of racial healing. Instead, the Reverend's death deprived the country of a man of enduring stature and transcendent credibility just at the moment that the civil rights movement was about to face the backlash, Nixon's "Southern Strategy", and the divisive politics of the 1970s and 1980s. I'd like to think that, when Ronald Reagan began to spin his crypto-racist tales of Welfare Queens, Martin Luther King would have been there to match the Gipper jab for jab, bringing his own charisma to the fight. And when the Republicans assailed affirmative action by appropriating Dr. King's ringing words about being judged by the content of our character, the great man himself would have put them in their place.
But he's gone, and all the speculation in the world will never tell us how much we truly lost on that early April day in Memphis forty years ago. Still, many of Dr. King's greatest gifts remain with us today. Perhaps the greatest of all is the recognition, four decades later, that the civil rights movement was and is a truly American struggle, and not simply something involving someone else somewhere else.