April 4 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. From Lincoln to King, assassinations of political figures have been part of our country’s history.
The assassinations of civil rights activists Medgar Evers (1963), Malcolm X (1965) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1968) were a stark reminder to black people that the pursuit of freedom and liberation often came at the ultimate cost. The assassination of King was arguably the most consequential for the course of American history and permanently changed the psychology of black people and challenged America’s ideals.
Because he was one of the most prominent leaders of the civil rights movement, King’s assassination was especially devastating. His optimism offered a stark contrast to Malcolm X’s pessimistic and fatalistic view of white America.
Guided by a Christian ethic and the philosophies of integrationism, nonviolence and civil disobedience, King was the moral conscience of a country that had failed to live up to its lofty ideals of the American Dream for black people.
In his book “Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare,” James H. Cone noted that Malcolm X and King were both killed by forces they sought to change. However, whereas Malcolm X was killed “by the blacks he loved and was seeking to liberate from self-hate,” King was “killed by the whites he loved and was seeking to set free of racism.”
Unlike Malcolm X, who viewed whites as having no moral conscience and America as a nightmare that was doomed for its crimes of slavery and segregation, King possessed a redemptive faith in the goodness of white people. He insisted on loving white people in spite of their treatment of blacks, and he spoke of having a dream that Americans of all racial backgrounds could live in peace and good will.
Whether people agreed with him or not, it was King’s appeal to white people’s moral conscience and his philosophy of nonviolence that provided him the platform to wield tremendous influence to cause social and political change. Thus, it was incomprehensible that this “drum major for justice” who followed the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance would be assassinated in cold blood.
What kind of country was America that it could produce the type of hatred that would kill a messenger of love and peace? If Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat was the spark that invigorated the civil rights movement, King’s assassination was the psychological accelerant that threatened to permanently derail it.
The black psychologist William Cross created a black liberation identity model that referenced the psychological impact of King’s assassination. In the Pre-Encounter stage, Cross characterized black people as being politically naïve and dependent on white leadership and a belief in assimilation-integration. These individuals were not actively involved in the civil rights movement.
In the Encounter stage, Cross described an experience or event that shattered the individual’s feeling about himself/herself and his/her interpretation of the condition of blacks in America. King’s assassination was an example of a shattering experience that propelled black people into becoming more politically active and into searching for a deeper understanding of the black power movement.
For many blacks, the reality that someone as prominent and righteous as King could get assassinated was a life-altering experience. Black people realized that being patient and trusting the country to eventually do right by black folks was a dream at risk of being permanently deferred. Blacks did not have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines in the pursuit of civil rights. For many, King’s assassination aroused what had been a sometimes muted yet simmering anger fueled by injustice toward black Americans.
Upon hearing about King’s assassination, civil rights activist and Black Power proponent Stokely Carmichael exclaimed: “When white America killed Dr. King last night, she declared war on us. It would have been better if she had killed Rap Brown … or Stokely Carmichael. But when she killed Dr. King, she lost it … He was the one man in our race who was trying to teach our people to have love, compassion and mercy for white people.”
News of King’s assassination reverberated across the entire world, with condolences coming from heads of state and world leaders. The nation had not been so deeply impacted since the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Black people, now angered and emboldened by such a heinous act of violence, engaged in weeks of rioting and urban rebellion that disrupted the country.
The psychological impact of King’s assassination endures 50 years later. King taught us that in the ongoing black freedom struggle, he was willing to die for a cause he knew was bigger than himself. He died for black freedom and ultimately trying to save the soul of this country. In many ways his death can be seen as the inheritance of thousands of people and recent social movements.
The Movement for Black Lives is the most direct continuation of King’s work, as Black Lives Matter activists have continued the fight for the civil rights of black people. Most recently in response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, the March For Our Lives took place in Washington, D.C. This student-led social movement seeks to pass legislation that effectively addresses gun violence. Interestingly, death by a gun is the common denominator behind these social movements.
As we remember Martin Luther King Jr. on this 50th anniversary of his death, let us reflect on one of his final prophetic statements the night before he was killed: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will … 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.”
In the current political climate, that promised land seems farther away than ever before. However, the level of political engagement by today’s youths is reason to be optimistic, as they are the embodiment of the meaning of King’s life and death.
Kevin Cokley is the Oscar and Ann Mauzy Regents Professor for Educational Research and Development, the director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, and a fellow of the UT System Academy of Distinguished Teachers at The University of Texas at Austin.