As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s important to reflect on King’s legacy to understand that we have not yet reached the mountaintop.
In his final speech, given on April 3, 1968 at the Mason Temple in Memphis, TN, King talked about the difficult days of the civil rights movement and his hopes that as a people we would get to freedom.
“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop,” he famously spoke. “And I don't mind. 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. 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. “
But as we commemorate this speech and focus on the civil rights work that has uplifted so many generations, we also need to be clear about his death; Dr. King wasn’t simply killed in a tragic accident.
He was assassinated. He was a victim of domestic terrorism.
The same domestic terrorism that murdered nine beautiful souls at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The same domestic terrorism that killed Kouren-Rodney Thomas in North Carolina. It’s the homegrown radicalization that Black Lives Matter, the #NeverAgain movement and so many other organizations are still fighting today. It’s a terrorism that we cannot separate from MLK when discussing his legacy. The same force that so many refuse to acknowledge, lest they have to face uncomfortable truths about America and racism.
These two things cannot be separated. We cannot allow the manner in which King was killed be erased for a new generation of activists who will surely use his quotes and speeches as a blueprint. We will use his death as the constant reminder that homegrown terrorism has devastating effects. That it remains a threat to Black families and communities. And it must be identified as such.
In March, Mark Anthony Conditt set off a series of bombs that killed two African Americans, one being a 17-year-old student who was posthumously accepted to a prestigious music school. A Latina woman was also injured in the bombings. But by initially refusing to label this act of violence as domestic terrorism — instead irresponsibly labeling Conditt’s actions as one spurred by mental health issues — we ignore this country’s sordid relationship with protecting whiteness and its other practice of erasing murderous actions, replacing them with humanizing traits and altogether ignoring the manner in which their victims were killed.
It seems, 50 years later, that we still haven’t grasped the concept of terrorism. And that the longer we refuse to acknowledge it, to deal with it and assign it specific repercussions, we’re doing a disservice to the victims who were murdered in the backdrop of hate and anger.
For King, that means pushing a false narrative of his legacy. It’s important to remember that when Dr. King was assassinated, he was not beloved. A Gallup poll in 1966 had King’s favorability at a 32 percent positive and 68 percent negative. A year before his death, King released his final book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" where he reflected on the Civil Rights Movement and believed that people must unite to fight poverty to create an equality of opportunity. He also criticized white moderates for having unrealistic views of the plight of Black people, and most seriously, he called the Vietnam War a waste of resources and a distraction.
The book echoed his 1967 speech at the Riverside Church in New York City where he doubled down on his dissent of the Vietnam War. The speech caused several of King’s allies to distance themselves from the civil rights leader. The New York Times ran an editorial called “Dr. King’s Error” suggesting that he should focus on racial justice instead of war. That echoes the same sentiments we hear today about gun control and the continued police shootings of Black people. Unfortunately, history has sanitized and watered down Dr. King’s message of non-violence. But Dr. King was anything but passive. He was angry, yet hopeful. He wasn’t waiting around for policy changes. He was on the streets demanding action. But to conflate nonviolence with passiveness is false. To act like King wasn't murdered in an act of terrorism to stop him from fighting for equity and equality for Black folks is false.
America must face this truth. It will not serve us or future generations well if we do not.
While we remember King’s legacy and what he left behind, let’s also remember that the same extremism that killed him has ruined many more lives since 1968. With every bombing on churches and homes, with every school and workplace shooting, with every hate-fueled Twitter post, America somehow chooses to ignore the vein of racism that runs through it. And with every mention on MLK without acknowledging the terrorism that killed him, we’re dishonoring a long legacy dismantling racism and violence.
We're dishonoring King. And 50 years later, it's time we stop.