The bullet that ripped open the dreamer’s neck on April 4, 1968 has not yet put a scratch on the dream. But it did stop one man from making good on his word, to shut down the capital of the USA during the summer of ’68. Forty years later, we have no business pretending that we do not know what Martin Luther King, Jr. would have done next.
All King needed in April ’68 was one more nonviolent march in Memphis so that he could get back on the road to Washington, D.C. where he planned to show the world how to immobilize an empire. He would shut down the center of federal power until people got their government back. Washington would be made to deliver to each American doorstep a job offer or a paycheck. Who doubted then that it could be done?
From early December 1955 until early April 1968, there are only fourteen King Years on the American calendar. And while it may be true that during King Year One the Montgomery bus boycott started without him, it would be difficult to imagine how he could have made himself more useful. How could we today not miss a man like that?
In 1968 the world’s youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize was attacking the everyday violence of American life where it begins, in the daily threat of economic rejection. On the way to pick up the peace prize in King Year Ten, he had traveled through Scandinavia, where he had seen up close how a modern economy did not need to be run like everyman’s trench war.
In King Year Twelve, the dreamer opened up the truth of the working-man’s war in America for all the cameras to see. King had a way of revealing truths that sometimes even he was not fully prepared to look at. When black citizens and workers marched for the right to exist among white neighbors in Chicago, it was the white folks themselves (and Northern white folks, too) who took to the trenches. The white media shivered differently this time and for different reasons. King, too, had to gauge whether all-out race war was worth the risk of starting, and so he left Chicago abruptly to a chorus of boos.
With so much violence in the alleyways, how could King not discern how the great American talent would out. In King Year Thirteen he said the greatest purveyor of violence in the world was the government of the USA. That was April 4, 1967. On April 4, 1968 he lay dying, falling back so un-naturally that one foot appeared stuck to that balcony floor. The mind that had comprehended America through the touch of ten million eager handshakes was suddenly and irrevocably emptied out.
On April Fool’s day 2008, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security — with prior consent of Congress, and only after the Texas delegate count had been finalized by the Democratic County Conventions — suspended more than 20 laws and regulations that once required the federal government to act peacefully and civilly in its relations with the rest of the citizens of the USA, with their property rights, with their natural resources, and with their relations to living creatures, all of which the federal government is now free to treat with open resentment along the Mexican border, in the way it has treated so many things for the past seven years or more.
Would King put up with this cycle of nonsense? Look to the Flip Schulke photo on page 123 of the Life Magazine commemorative edition that has recently been sold across America’s newsstands (reprinting the 2000 Viking Studio collaboration between Charles Johnson the novelist and Bob Adelman). Look at the three books that King is holding as the tired-of-this-too dreamer takes another jail term in 1967: Galbraith’s New Industrial State, Styron’s Nat Turner, and the Holy Bible. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, all tucked together in the grip of his left hand. Does he look like he’s ready to be gone?
Still, as we mourn the first forty years without King, we cannot afford to forget that it takes a people to kill a dream. And the ultimate faith of nonviolence lies in the unstoppable truth that even a sleeping people cannot forget to desire. And a desiring people cannot forget to act. And once people put themselves into motion as one, it becomes possible for an army of lovers to win, even against such awful dragons as stalk the broad daylight along the avenues of Washington, DC.
GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.