On the 55th anniversary of his assassination, it is hard to think of anyone whose legacy has been so misrepresented as that of Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King (MLK) dedicated his life to the pursuit of truth regardless of the consequences, personal or political. Thus, at the time of his murder at the hands of a white supremacist on April 4, 1968 in the city of Memphis, where he had arrived to lead a march of the city’s sanitation workers over pay and conditions, he found himself an isolated figure.
Indeed, in an uncanny if not macabre example of a death foretold, on the eve of his assassination, at the end of both the last and one of the most famous speeches he ever gave, the black civil rights leader proclaimed:
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. And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
King by now had alienated many of his white liberal champions and supporters in Washington, and also many of his friends and followers within the black civil rights movement, over his vocal opposition to the war in Vietnam. Meanwhile, his refusal to budge from the principal of non-violence when it came to the struggle for racial justice and equality had shed him support within the wider black civil rights movement among a young generation of activists whose anger and frustration at the lack of progress when it came to achieving justice for black people was at breaking point.
King biographer James H. Cone writes that King’s “sermons [opposing Vietnam] were delivered against the advice of many of his friends and followers… who told him to keep silent about the war because he was alienating President Johnson and [the movement’s] financial supporters.” No matter, Cone elaborates, because King “could not overlook [America’s] great contradictions of racism, poverty, and militarism.”