MLK: What We Lost

Hank Willis Thomas/Tracy Martin
Hank Willis Thomas: In a Non-Violent Movement, Unmerited Suffering Is Redemptive, from the installation Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around, 2016. The image appears in the book Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal, just published by Aperture and the Portland Art Museum, with an exhibition to follow next year. The original photograph is by Spider Martin, 1965.

“Well, they killed King.” The matter-of-fact statement hung in the air of the kitchen where a roomful of women—including my mother (I was the lone child)—had gathered on that April day in 1968 to learn to make hot tamales for sale at church fund-raisers. Our herald, the adult son of the kitchen’s owner, delivered the news after pushing through the swinging door from the living room where the men had settled to watch television while we worked. His face—downcast eyes, furrowed brow, pursed lips—showed the resignation of one who had long suspected this would happen—a painful but near-inevitable outcome.

They killed King.” Even as a third grader, I didn’t have to ask who “King” was, and I had a pretty good idea who “they” were, too. Martin Luther King Jr. was the leader of the black community—only recently calling itself “black”—though in my household Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X were more admired. “They” were whites who opposed any efforts—whether by King, Carmichael, or Malcolm—to advance the status of black people in the United States. I had integrated the school district in our predominately white East Texas town just a few years before, and spent time in first grade as the sole black person in a school full of whites. I felt I knew what some of this nameless “they” were capable of doing. Open cruelty was not uncommon in our world. More regularly, however, faux politeness and friendliness, mixed with an expectation of deference, masked whites’ smoldering hostility toward black people. That a person who sought to disrupt that world would draw actual fire, even though he denounced “eye for an eye” thinking and spoke of love conquering hate, should have surprised no one.

It might be hard for younger generations of Americans in 2018, fifty years after King’s assassination, to fathom just how controversial a figure he was during his career, and particularly around the time of his death. That is because King’s image has undergone a remarkable transformation in these five decades. He and the movement he helped to lead have been absorbed into a triumphant story of American exceptionalism, in which the actions of individual people matter less than the dynamism of the supposedly inexorable wave of human progress that swept the country forward from the Declaration of Independence to the civil rights movement. The strength of the opposition to civil rights for blacks, the antagonizing and discomfiting words King used, and the aggressively disruptive tactics he and his supporters employed…

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