On April 4, 1968 civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while standing on the Lorraine hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. In the wake of 50 years since his assassination, with the Trump era, white supremacy uprisings, police shootings of unarmed African Americans, disenfranchisement of Black convicted felons and mass incarceration, many are left wondering if anything has changed in 50 years or changed for the worse. In order to reflect on the 50 years, one must begin with a look back at the years before Martin Luther King’s rise in civil rights era.
Martin Luther King, Jr. led the civil rights movement from approximately 1955 until his death in 1968—a short 13 years. In those 13 short years, King’s leadership with others accomplished more than had been accomplished in the 350 years since Blacks first arrived in the U.S. Throughout the U.S. African Americans were treated as less than 2nd class citizens. Separate but equal was the law. In the year before King’s rise, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate but equal was no longer the law in public education. Before Linda Brown’s case, Blacks were denied the right to attend public schools with whites.
Beyond schools, discrimination and desegregation existed in public accommodations in all forms of transportation, hotels, restaurants, parks, swimming pools, stores and anywhere the public and whites were involved. The biggest impediment to Blacks was the denial of the right to vote under Jim Crow laws in the south. In many areas, Blacks were not allowed to register to vote or required to pay a poll tax or take an absurd test—such as guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar. While many Blacks fled the south to the north for better opportunities, still discrimination waited for them in the north.
King’s nonviolent protests and the civil rights movement moved the nation as Blacks were seen on TV being beat by police as they led peaceful protests for the rights to be treated equally as whites and to e able to vote. Congressman John Lewis (D. GA) was one of those who almost lost his life in the fight for voting rights.
By 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson urged lawmakers to pass the Civil Rights Act. It was signed into law on July 2, 1964 and outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It prohibited unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations.. The following year, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act which was designed to protect and enforce the voting rights of Blacks as afforded in the Constitution. A core provision of the act required under Section 5 a preclearance requirement, which prohibits certain jurisdictions from implementing any change affecting voting without receiving preapproval from the U.S. Attorney General or the U.S. District Court for D.C. to show that the change does not discriminate against protected minorities. Unfortunately, in 2013 Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the coverage formula as unconstitutional, reasoning that it was no longer responsive to current conditions.
By 1968 at the time of King’s death, he was advocating for a living wage for workers. He was assassinated in Memphis, while he was there to protest with sanitation workers on adequate wages. Before his death, he had sharply criticized the Vietnam War.
When I hear folks say that not much had change since King’s fight for civil rights, I must differ. While many things are still present in the U.S. due to racism, such as a resurgence of the KKK and white supremacy, there is a difference. King came into prominence in the 90 years post slavery. In those 90 years, over 4000 Blacks were lynched. Many Blacks were systemically lynched on the court house lawns as a means of perceived white justice. Other Blacks were lynched or killed at the hands of prominent members of white society for perceived indiscretions against whites. Emmitt Till’s violent death in 1955 was the wake up call for the beginning civil rights movement. The death of Emmitt Till had a profound effect on King and moved him to action to start the Montgomery bus boycotts.
Today King’s dream of full citizenship for African Americans is still being fought and waged on many fronts. From the disparate police shootings of unarmed African Americans, mass incarceration of Blacks, disenfranchisementof voting rights for convicted felons in states and restircive voter ID laws for others, the struggle continues. The Trump era’s attempts to set back gains accomplished by President Obama are battles waging daily.
Perhaps the greatest testament to King is his fight for the reality that voting and voting rights are paramount for African Americans. The ability of African Americans to be able to vote, albeit with restrictive voter ID laws aimed to deter voting, enabled the election of Barack Obama. And the same ability of many Blacks to remain home on election day in November, 2016 ushered in the Trump era.
King’s death did not end the dream. It moved the dream into a new era—that must be fought continuously by a new generation. We are not back at square one but we must continue the fight.
I appeared on BBC News to discuss the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.—50 years later.
Start @5:40- 13:53
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is an attorney, speaker and former prosecutor.