“Early morning April 4th
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride” ---U2 “In the Name of Love” (1)
On this day, long ago, a voice of hope calling for America to fulfill its promises; a voice for justice in a country where justice has been long overdue, was silenced. Today marks the beginning of that long journey into night, the years of darkness into which we have now been wandering for two score years. The violence that was 1968 abruptly extinguished the greatest hopes of a generation to unite black and white in an effort to address the pressing problems of racial and economic injustice in the United States. The ensuing backlash shifted the country markedly to the ‘right’, making possible a return to power of conservative America. In time, the heirs of Hoover and Eisenhower and Taft would give way to the acolytes of Goldwater, who would destroy the national consensus that was the New Deal and wage relentless war on the middle class.
From this perspective, we cannot underestimate the loss of Martin Luther King, Jr. At the time of his death, King was planning a "poor people’s" march on Washington in which his critique of America would expand from civil rights to include the disproportionate burden the poor were carrying in fighting the war in Vietnam, and shifting greater emphasis in his definition of social injustice to economics. His plan was to pressure America to address the inequality of incomes and employment, taking to heart the criticism of Malcolm X that it didn’t cost anything to integrate lunch counters, the real challenge was to get the greater society to share the fruits of labor. It was at this juncture — at the very point where the movement would share goals with a larger and more Caucasian agenda and demand that justice be served by creating an even larger and more inclusive middle class - that the flame that was Martin Luther King, Jr. was extinguished. After his death, there were marches in Memphis and elsewhere, and there was a big march on Washington later in the summer in which the poor took up residence in makeshift housing on the Capitol Mall, naming it “Resurrection City”, but the movement failed in its efforts to broaden itself, in large part because the voice that had given so much life was no more.
We miss you, Martin. Oh, how you would have stood up to Nixon and Reagan. How you would have castigated ‘Ol Two-Cows, and ridiculed with a moral voice that only you could have brought to the arena, the oxymoron that is “Compassionate Conservatism.” You taught us that what happens to the least of us threatens all of us, and that we are each others keeper. We were blessed to have known you, and have known only darkness since you’ve gone.
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