50 Years After Dr. King’s Death, New Lessons for Today

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., June 30, 1963, in a photograph from the New York Times archive. The month before, in Birmingham, Ala., he organized an anti-segregation protest by thousands of black schoolchildren.

MEMPHIS — March for Our Lives, the student-driven protest against gun violence. The Millions March against police violence. The Sacramento protest over the fatal shooting of Stephon Clark. Had he survived, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been there, walking, talking, listening, present, as he was for countless body-on-the-line campaigns for social justice in the 1950s and ’60s.

He was organizing a march in the final days of his life. On April 3, 1968, he came to Memphis on what was a fast return trip. A peaceful demonstration five days earlier in support of black city sanitation workers had ended in a panicked rout when militant protesters stirred up the crowd, and the police came down hard. Now he was back.

Credit...Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

That night, at a local church, he delivered his apocalyptic “Mountaintop” speech. People cheered. His mood brightened. He spent much of the next day, April 4, at the black-owned Lorraine Motel, waiting for the city to approve a permit for the second march. When it finally came through, he relaxed. Everything would be O.K.

Around 6:00, he strolled onto the balcony outside his second-floor room and bantered with friends in the parking lot below. There was the crack of a gunshot. He staggered and dropped.

Dr. King’s death shook the nation, inspired outpourings of grief, rage, and in some quarters, relief. Two months later, Robert F. Kennedy was killed and mourning shifted, the news cycle moved on. In the years that followed, the Lorraine Motel slowly fell into disrepair until, in 1991, it was rescued and reopened as the National Civil Rights Museum. An expansion in 2014 brought in new visitors. And the 50th anniversary of the King assassination, coming now as it does in a politically sundered, racially fraught year, should bring in more, with a special exhibition, starting April 4, comparing contemporary events like the Occupy movement and the Living Wage Campaign with King’s Poor People’s Campaign and sanitation strike.

What they’ll find in its permanent collection is a monument to a movement and, secondarily, to a man, in a display that focuses on difficult, sometimes ambiguous historical data more than on pure celebration. And they’ll find, if they are patient, useful information for the 2018 present, and for the future.

The shape of the story told by the museum is chronological, a narrative of African-American life that starts with colonial slavery, moves through the long Jim Crow era, and then lingers over the civil rights events of the 1950s and ’60s: the bus boycotts, the Freedom Rides; the Washington march; the Birmingham children’s crusade, the Selma-to-Montgomery walk for the vote; the Memphis strike.

It’s a story of high contrasts: good versus bad, right versus wrong. And the museum presents it that way. In windowless, black-box galleries, objects are picked out in pin spots; words and images glow on digital screens. They are the visual equivalents of references to light that glint in Dr. King’s speeches, to “luminous brotherhood,” “the sunlight of opportunity,” “the radiant promises of progress.” He called the Memphis strike another step on the journey from “the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”

Such imagery has always been part of popular accounts of the movement. In another Southern museum, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which opened in Jackson, Miss., late last year, the galleries are, as in Memphis, somber and shadowy, but they open onto a central hall furnished with benches and holding a big sculpture made of swirling, pulsating light. The message: history is grim, but it’s also redemptive. You can break for uplift any time.

The Memphis museum uses light to dramatic effect, but in a very different way. After you’ve walked though sequential decades of history, you arrive at 1968, instantly recognizable from a mural-size image by the Memphis photographer Ernest C. Withers of sanitation workers carrying protest placards reading “I AM A MAN.” You pass through a narrow passageway and suddenly the artificial twilight you’ve become used to becomes daylight.

You are inside the Lorraine Motel, on the second floor, outside Room 306, Dr. King’s room, visible through a cutaway wall: turned-down beds; open suitcases; coffee cups, sunlight seeping through curtains — preserved mostly as it was when he died. And just outside the room is the balcony door. You look through its window and see where Dr. King fell and, some distance away, the back of a building, the former rooming house — now part of the museum — from which his killer took aim. (James Earl Ray died while serving a 99-year sentence.)

Unlike the museum’s other displays, this one is minimally theatrical: real-world light falling on plain, real-world things. Also, it’s a dead end. Your pilgrim’s progress into history is, abruptly, over. If the civil rights movement extended beyond April 4, 1968, you don’t learn that here. Your choices are either to return the way you came or head for a closer exit.

The story the museum tells stirs emotions but leaves them unresolved. In many ways the experience, whether intended or not, is in sync with the political atmosphere of the country today. Uplift feels anachronistic; progress is cut off; the future left unimagined.

Dr. King may have shared similar feelings. In our journey through the museum, he has been our Virgil, our calm, sage guide through the hell and heaven of postwar racial history. In Room 306, he becomes our frustrated, anxious contemporary.

When he checked into the Lorraine on April 3, he was in a dark mood, not just from the first, failed march, but from a political environment that had turned unpredictable. His speech that night was a sonorous movement pep talk. But there was regret in it. It was mortality-tinged:

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. 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.”

I wonder if, at that point, he really believed we would get to this “promised land” of racial harmony anytime soon. By that point, integration was, technically, reality, with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., and the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. But so was the anger, both black and white, that the fight for equality had generated. By the mid-1960s, Dr. King was sensing that the nonviolent resistance he had built his reputation on was inadequate. He continued to preach an ideal of reform-through-love, but he was starting to think about “a radical revolution of values.

He was thinking global. It had become clear to him that racism was not a stand-alone evil. It was an organic element in a disease complex that included capitalism, colonialism and militarism. In 1965, in a break with his assigned public role fighting racism Dr. King spoke out against the war in Vietnam. It confused supporters and earned him vindictive enemies. By the time he checked into Room 306, he was, for good reason, feeling vulnerable and fatalistic. He had been to the mountaintop; but he had hit some valleys too.

My guess is that if Martin Luther King Jr. of 1968 were to return to 2018 America, he would be unsurprised by some of what he’d find: the staggering numbers of black men in jail; the recurrent killings of unarmed black youths by police; the emboldened presence of white supremacism. As a leader, he shaped a great humanitarian movement; as a thinker, he came to understand humanism’s deep flaws.

I wonder what he would think about how we engage with the history he helped create. A glance at contemporary art might give him some clues. In 1988, the African-American artist Glenn Ligon took as a subject a foundational civil rights emblem, the “I AM A MAN” strike placard, and did several things to it simultaneously: He replicated it, customized it, and critiqued it.

He turned it into a painting. In doing so, he paid homage to the mass-printed original; he gave its adamant words a new, queer dimension (Mr. Ligon is gay); and he turned an activist artifact, one that functioned as demand for economic equity, into an elite museum object, its text now done in glossy, light-catching enamel. (The painting is currently on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, in honor of the King anniversary.)

On multiple levels, Mr. Ligon made a piece of civil rights history his own, though attempts by other artists to do something similar have backfired. A recent example is the painting “Open Casket” by Dana Schutz, in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. The source of the image in this case was also a movement icon: a 1955 post mortem photograph of Emmett Till, a black teenager who, after being accused of whistling at a white woman, was murdered. At his mother’s insistence, Till’s tortured body was put on public view and photographed. The pictures, printed in Jet magazine, are credited with bringing many people into the civil rights movement, among them Dr. King.

At the Whitney, the painting sparked protests by some black artists who demanded its removal. At issue was that Ms. Schutz is white. Dr. King’s initial vision for the civil rights movement was one of racial harmony; blacks and whites working together to achieve equal lives for all. Possibly in those early days, Ms. Schutz’s painting might have passed as a gesture of solidarity.

But by 1968, it was clear, even to moderate blacks, that sharing power was not likely to happen. For the Whitney protesters, “Open Casket” was an emblem of the continuing exercise of white privilege that, in this case, allowed a white-controlled museum and a white artist to lay claim to a sensational image of black pain.

I suspect that the Dr. King of Room 306 would have understood the protesters’ point. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, given in 1964, when he was 35, he said that he could not, would not, permit himself to envision a world in which humanity was “so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.” But over the next four years, as Vietnam ground on, civil rights activists met violent ends, and race wars laid waste to American cities, daybreak must have seemed far-off.

To idealists of the 21st century, it may seem that on many social, economic and ethical fronts the country has come to what seems a futureless halt, just as the museum’s civil rights story does. But rather than exit the scene in weariness or frustration, we would do well to go back in time. If we stay alert, we can find instruction there.

The emphasis of the present-day protest movements is on inclusion: equal salaries, equal education, the right to marry. The goal is to get a share in the system. The civil rights movement began with that goal too, then realized that the system was the problem. Dr. King eventually came to this conviction, and in some ways it made the end of his life hard, complicated and unsettled.

Other people, however, held that view all along, and many of them were women. Sexism was rampant within the movement leadership. Women were expected to make coffee, make nice and stay home. Some, like Ella Baker, a tireless civil rights organizer, refused. True monuments have yet to be raised to enough of these women. One, Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977), was a monument herself.

A Mississippi Delta field worker, she was jailed and beaten when she tried to register to vote at 46, but went on to run for Congress. Her televised testimony, to determine whether she and her all-black Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party could be seated at the Democratic National Convention, is in the National Civil Rights Museum. Hamer’s unscripted account of her jail experience, with its blunt challenge — “I question America” — is overwhelming: dark and incandescent.

In May 1963, in Birmingham, Ala., Dr. King organized the most brilliant civil disobedience campaigns of his career, when he brought more than a thousand black schoolchildren into the streets to demonstrate against segregation. Hundreds were arrested; others were blasted with fire hoses. When people rebuked Dr. King for putting young people at risk, he said: “Don’t hold them back if they want to go to jail. For they are doing a job not only for themselves, but for all of America and for all mankind.” The world reacted, shamed the city and Birmingham took its first steps toward desegregation.

It occurred to me while I was listening to Hamer that her equivalents today may be Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. And the Children’s Campaign lives on in March for Our Lives and #NeverAgain. Dr. King, at the end of his life, set for himself a goal that all worthy leaders might strive for: to live a life of “dangerous unselfishness.” In 2018, this could yield an imaginable future.

The sermon Dr. King gave the night before he died was somber and cautionary but also gave reason for hope. “Only when it’s dark enough,” he said, “can you see the stars.”

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