OPINION: Fifty-six years after King’s death, concerns persist and questions remain

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 Fifty-six years ago, April 4, 1968, many of us cried over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We cried over the dastardly act itself; we cried for his family; we cried for the movement and America. For many of us, it was a sorrowful time and a depressive time.

Just a week earlier, King had visited the small school where the writer was employed, Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in order to see his friend Aaron E. Henry whose only daughter Rebecca was in class there at the time. Consequently, he and knowledge of the work he was doing to assist the sanitation workers in Memphis and to organize the Poor Peoples’ March on Washington, starting in Marks, Mississippi, were quite fresh on our minds. To then hear of the assassination was too much to take in stride. We turned our face to the wall and wondered, “Who will lead Black people and the movement now?” It was an even more persistent question than we had asked in 1963 when John Kennedy had been assassinated. At that time, we had wondered, “What would happen to the movement” since Kennedy had only recently introduced what would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act. King’s assassination was much more direct and personal. 

 Within that same breath of time, another thought emerged. Since the acknowledged murderers of Emmett Till had gotten off the hook for that kidnapping, torture, and murder; since thousands of others had gotten off after assassinating, murdering, and lynching Black individuals; and since Byron de la Beckwith had not yet been re-tried and convicted for the assassination of Medgar Evers, most Black people in the American south for sure felt that no white person would ever be convicted of a crime against a Black person, not even for King’s assassination. (Many were fairly certain that the assassin was white.) Yet, they waited, hoped, and prayed that the assassin would be found.

From those days in April of 1968 there have been questions and concerns raised regarding both matters – what will happen to the movement and what will happen regarding the assassination. Unfortunately, those matters have persisted down to the present. On the other hand, it may be that with the present state of knowledge and the technical tools to access even more, the present generation can and will bring us to the right and just resolution.

Let us, nevertheless, spell out our concerns. First of all, while it has been on the back burner for quite a while, it is still important to know all of the parties involved in King’s assassination; it’s important to know the role played by each and the extent of the cover-up. We realize that several investigations have been conducted with mixed reported outcomes. (Most of the investigators feel that James Earl Ray, if he pulled the trigger, did not act alone, that he probably had help planning the attack and fleeing.) We realize that because of FBI Director’s attitude toward charismatic Black leaders, and especially toward King, that the FBI cannot be fully trusted. We realize also that like many documents surrounding John Kennedy’s assassination, there are documents surrounding the assassination of King that are “officially” hidden from the public. It may take not only an act of Congress, a presidential order, or a Supreme Court decision to make it happen; neither will happen absent massive and persistent protests.

Knowing the full truth behind the assassination of King perhaps should not require all of our time; it definitely should not be pushed aside and ignored. As is the case with many other mistaken events/incidents in the country’s history. For this, as much as possible, there needs to be a correction of the country’s course. That is the only way that we can become who we say that we desire to be.

The second matter, that of what will happen to the movement; who will lead Black people and their supporters, looms as large today as it did in April of 1968. Because that matter has been more actively on the minds of many people, it can and should be a multi-pronged question and concern. The questions should include: (1) Which tactics work best for which problems or issues? (2) Which leaders in which arenas can be most effective? (3) What coalitions need to be built? (4) How can we keep egos checked and charismatic leaders on the path of the community? None of this can or will be easy.

Dr. King was a brilliant man who had many gifts. No matter who steps forward will need to develop modifications in order to lead the movement to a successful conclusion. King had big shoes to fill, maybe too big for most of us. We, nevertheless, should feel obligated to search together and find out what needs to happen to get the movement and the country to where they need to be. That is the least that we can do to honor this man who gave his all for the civil rights movement and for the success of the so-called American experiment with democracy and human rights. April 2024 may be an ideal time to act on that obligation.  

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OPINION: Fifty-six years after King’s death, concerns persist and questions remain

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
April 8, 2024