"I've Been To The Mountaintop" speech, Assassination, LBJ, Legacy, Martin Luther King Jr., MLK, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Radical Change, RFK, Robert F. Kennedy, Social Justice, Social Welfare, Stephon Clark, The '60s, The Great Society, This is America, Vietnam War, War on Poverty, Welfare State
Over the next week or two, America will talk incessantly about the fiftieth anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. Many Americans will memorialize MLK this April 4th, one day from the actual day of the week James Earl Ray’s rifle shot took the great one’s life at a two-star motel. This was a moment that shook the nation. It certainly was a moment that blew up in the minds of nearly every Black American. There were more than 100 riots — actual riots, and not the random vandalism the media’s all too quick to call a riot — in cities across the country. It changed the nation enough to where, at least for a few years, African Americans once denied educational and employment opportunities could suddenly find themselves at elite White universities, with major corporations, and with big private foundations, and often, for the first time.
But as much as I want to memorialize Dr. King, his life and his death, I do not want to resurrect him as a zombie-like poster child for ridding the US of racism. Especially when I know all too well that it’ll likely take the The Rapture, and not a rally, to make this impossibility a reality. I’ve long since tired of King as a marble statue of unattainable goodness and perfection for Whites and conservatives of color who use him as a cudgel against any Blacks who haven’t materially progressed or who have exposed the nation as racist. I’m also tired of progressives who call out racism as only hate, and King’s life and death as an attempt to fight it, when King was speaking truth to power, and organizing poor people to siphon that power. That’s what King died over, ultimately.
Even more than King, though, is the reality that America has a string of fiftieth anniversary milestones to contemplate. In a sixty-eight day period in 1968, the true nature of American power dashed the delusion of an easy path to ending systemic racism and gross economic inequalities in which millions of naive Americans had once believed. Between LBJ’s refusal to run again on March 31st, MLK’s execution on April 4th, and RFK’s assassination on June 5th, any traditional Democrat, White liberal, or even someone with some sense of hope in America’s future must’ve been devastated. If I’d been at least ten years old in 1968, I would’ve been, too.
Sadly, President Lyndon Johnson tried to fight a War on Poverty and build the Great Society while also escalating a war over communism in Vietnam and in the rest of Southeast Asia. He bled the nation’s wealth and its poorer class of men dry in Vietnam, and starved his modestly radical domestic programs in the process. While so much of Johnson’s legacy remains, none of it remains strong. Every administration since Johnson announced, “Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President” has weakened his attempts at a comprehensive welfare state. Including Social Security, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and of course, aid to single parents with younger children.
The front-runner for the Democratic nomination in the weeks after President Johnson’s “no mas” announcement was Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY). His victory in winning the California primary on June 5 had mostly sealed that deal. He barely had more than a few minutes to enjoy it, though. After his victory speech that night, Sirhan Sirhan killed RFK, and with it, the center-very-very-very-slightly-left Democratic coalition of the 1960s. Johnson, of course, died in 1973. No president has come close to being transformative since.
I was born in 1969, so I didn’t get the chance to experience living through these horrible events. But I did learn about them early on. Seeing paintings of MLK, JFK and RFK (or of MLK, JFK, and LBJ) in the living rooms of my mother’s friends. Through John Lennon’s music and CBS’s All in the Family. That sense of lingering hopefulness in changing the world that I did see at the end of America’s Vietnam era. In some ways, I’m as much a “child of the 60s” as anyone who was ten or fifteen years old at the time of RFK’s death.
Yet I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, a time in which most White liberals and Democrats decided to forget about the overall message of change and social justice that LBJ, RFK, and MLK represented. The youthfulness and motivation that was JFK in the early 60s. The sense that by breaking down barriers and encouraging the end of those practices that leave many Americans behind, our nation would retain its strength as a beacon of democracy, freedom and equality. Of course there was a great tension there. And in that tension, America returned to its center-right script, symbolically using a marble and granite King while chipping away at welfare state protections and regulations, and promoting virulent racism.
Those 68 days in 1968 proved more than anything else that while Americans can envision a multitude of Americas, there was and remains only one America. The one in which money, power, racism, misogyny, and homophobia rule the day. Americans can fight for a better nation, and Americans should, if only to blunt the full fury of America’s ills. But make no mistake. The America that assassinated MLK, RFK, and JFK, and put LBJ in an early grave. That’s the same America that elected 45 and allows police to shoot unarmed Black and Brown people like rabid dogs. This. Is. America.