Political Animal


April 04, 2013 5:26 PM April 4, 1968

By Ed Kilgore

I’d be remiss in failing to note that this is the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis. I remember hearing about it as graphically as any shocking news story (and there have been more than a few) of my lifetime. But for those born later, here’s what it sounded like at the time:

It’s interesting now to watch Cronkite and realize how much of the reaction from the nation’s movers and shakers (including LBJ) revolved around fears of “Negro violence” rather than grief at the violent death—at the age of 39—of one of America’s greatest leaders.

My favorite overall assessment of King’s legacy was written by Alan Wolfe in a New York Times review of one of the Taylor Branch biographical books, back in 1998:

Our century’s identity has been to insure that the ideal of civic equality announced to the world in 1776 would become a reality. Just to help make that come about, King had to overcome the determined resistence of terrorists without conscience, politicians without backbone, rivals without foresight and an FBI director so malicious that he would stop at nothing to destroy a man who believed in justice….For all the tribulations his enemies confronted him with, it is not those who foolishly and vainly stood in his way whom we remember, but Martin Luther King, Jr., our century’s epic hero.

We’re well into another century now, but that hasn’t changed.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • revchicoucc on April 04, 2013 9:01 PM:

    I remember this night, too, Ed. I was ten, doing some homework in the family room of our suburban Atlanta home, with the TV on, when a "special bulletin" came on. I am white, yet, even then, regarded Dr. King as a hero, and he was a local hero, an Atlantan like me. I sat on the sofa and cried. My parents came and sat with me. They admired him, too, although not as much as I did. I have a portrait of him in my office that portrays him as a modern saint.

    I do not think the concerns about violence were misplaced or overstated. Certainly, the summer of 1968 included more than one eruption. Perhaps more than anyone realized at the time, Dr. King's emphasis on nonviolence had helped contained anger, not just over racial issues, but over Vietnam as well. His assassination was a pivotal event in a pivotal year in American history.

    I am curious: what was going on in Wellington, New Zealand that needed a CBS reporter?

  • angler on April 04, 2013 10:25 PM:

    great post Ed.

  • Bonnie on April 04, 2013 11:34 PM:

    I was 22 and still reeling from the assassination of JFK. And, little did I know that in June, Bobby Kennedy would be assassinated. I have no words for the sorrow I felt over these senseless tragedies. 1968 was a very tough year.

  • c u n d gulag on April 05, 2013 6:57 AM:

    I was also ten, and had come home from school with my 7 year-old sister in tow, and turned on the TV to watch our favorite shows, and instead, saw that Dr. King had been killed.

    I stood there, absolutely shocked.
    Of course, I knew who he was, and admired him.
    He had been a hero to me. Maybe my first, after my father.
    And then, I remember crying. And my sister started crying - but probably only because her older brother was crying.
    I don't remember stopping, but I must have, probably when my father rushed home from work (back then, it was common in my neighborhood for kids to be alone while their parents worked - the neighbors all watched out for the kids).
    I'm still crying now.

    I was 5 when JFK had been shot, and I remember exactly where I was when I heard about it - but I was too young to understand anything, except the grief of my older family members, of course.

    Dr. King's death, was MY first shocking assassination. Unfortunately, it wasn't my last.

    And, though young, I was already a 'political animal.'
    My father had let me watch the evening news every day in those turbulent times, and he read to me from the NY Times - and, at 10, he let me read if for myself.

    And so, I was following the news about the upcoming election.
    My man for President in '68, was Bobby Kennedy.
    And I'm still crying over that, too.

  • Speed on April 05, 2013 9:37 AM:

    These were not "senseless" tragedies. These people were not killed by lone psychos.

    Ed, you could mention that a jury in a civil trial in 1999 ruled that a conspiracy involving people in the government was behind MLK's death (the full transcript of the trial is a must-read); and that a jury in a 1993 mock trial for TV found Ray not guilty.

    There are some excellent books on the JFK case, such as Professor Gerald McKnight's "Breach of Trust," and on the RFK case the work of Phillip Melanson and William Turner is essential.

    You would think that American "liberals" would care enough to learn the truth about the deaths of their heroes, rather than hide behind official lies and fairy tales. But they'd rather waste their time and energy on partisan food fights and chronicling the ravings of right-wing talking heads.