So long ago — before the national holiday we observe today, before the monument in his honor was installed near the National Mall — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said he was getting too much of the credit for the civil rights movement.
He had a point. In their dedication and bravery, Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, John Lewis, and other giants of that era arguably were everything he was, minus the smooth eloquence. Yet perhaps most amazing of all were the thousands of ordinary people who joined his marches, where they were cursed, jeered, and physically attacked. Their own greatness — proven in their unearthly patience and refusal to respond to violence with violence — could be said to be equal to King’s.
There was one exception — King’s final march.
King’s rhetoric could be fiery at times, as befitting a leader railing against injustices such as those endured by the black sanitation workers in Memphis, men stuck in society’s lowest rung, struggling at poverty-level wages in a dangerous job in which two had recently been killed.
An account of the march recalled that in a speech in Memphis 10 days earlier,
… King based part of his speech on the New Testament parable of Dives (pronounced DYE-veez) and Lazarus. King’s point was that white Memphians were willfully indifferent to the suffering of the city’s black working poor. One day these whites would suffer for their blindness, he warned.
To get middle-class white people in Memphis to see their working poor neighbors, King told his Mason Temple audience to “escalate the struggle a bit.” King called for a general work stoppage[.]
During the March 28 march he led down Beale Street,
a number of young African Americans began breaking storefront windows[.] …
[P]olice attacked with tear gas and clubs. Peaceful marchers were caught up in the same violence as youthful looters. One teenager, a suspected looter, was shot to death. Dozens of protesters were injured and nearly 300 black people arrested. Stores in the black section of town got looted and burned[.] …
He felt great guilt, as King was wont to do, that somehow he had failed, that it was his fault, that he had let the movement down, [historian Michael] Honey says. He knew also that the FBI and the news media would go on the attack against him[.]
As happened in the Capitol riot that coincided with Trump’s final rally on January 6, outside agitators reportedly played a role in the sabotage of King’s final demonstration. The violent criminality in Memphis was at first attributed to the Invaders, a group of young activists. But was there more to the story? In his book Orders to Kill, King colleague William Pepper wrote:
This group of twenty or so black men and women developed a series of programs designed to address local needs by providing services where none had previously existed[.] … They were infiltrated by intelligence operatives and subjected to surveillance out of all proportion to any threat they might have posed to the Memphis power structure.
Pepper learned from one of his sources that the Invaders “were infiltrated by a black undercover cop who was an agent provocateur for violence and illegal activity[.]” According to senior Invader leader Dr. Coby Smith, their own investigation “established the presence in the area that day of a number of cars with Illinois license plates and a number of youths who weren’t known to any of the Invaders[.]”
After their final, disastrous marches, it appears that both King and Trump were successfully “riot-shamed,” with Trump displaying signs of the same guilt King reportedly felt. Trump’s quick abandonment of his electoral challenge looked like the behavior of a leader who felt he’d done something wrong (or was it simply a realistic acknowledgment that his challenge was over, killed by a handful of “patriots” and leftist radicals who were glad to assist them in their deadly rampage?).
The events of Memphis in 1968 and Washington in 2021 are reminders that highly charged protests — no matter how nonviolent and righteous — are like live grenades; and the higher the stakes, the more dangerous.
When King and his colleagues addressed the 1963 March on Washington, President Kennedy — who supported their cause, and was mere blocks away — did not dare join them, reportedly out of concern that any violence that might break out would be used to tarnish him and destroy his re-election chances.
Trump, who wished to acknowledge and encourage the multitude who showed up to support him on a cold day, could be said to have gambled and lost. As Geoffrey P. Hunt depicted it, he walked into a trap. His many successes in four years attest to meticulous planning and sound, balanced judgment, yet there are times he seems reckless in word and deed. The world’s most famous person remains an enigma.
Among other striking similarities between King and Trump: Both were targeted by corrupt, high-ranking officials determined to destroy them. King was obsessively surveilled and sabotaged by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and allegations of a similar Spygate/Obamagate targeting of Trump are under investigation. The media assisted in the war on both leaders; in the case of King, a number of journalists obediently reported smears fed to them by the FBI.
Trump was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize yet defamed as a fascist. King was awarded the prize in 1964 for his efforts to see America’s founding principles fully applied, yet he was defamed as a communist (despite condemning communism as depersonalizing, freedom-crushing totalitarianism and insisting that no true Christian could be a communist).
The analogies don’t end there. The tens of millions of us feeling cheated out of our votes by a fraud-ridden election, and at risk of giving in to anger and despair, were preceded by others in similar and worse situations, whose example can help light our way. Among them were the disenfranchised black Americans King spoke for in his “Give Us the Ballot” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1957, where he emphasized:
We need a leadership that is calm and yet positive. This is no day for the rabble-rouser, whether he be Negro or white. We must realize that we are grappling with the most weighty social problem of this nation, and in grappling with such a complex problem there is no place for misguided emotionalism. We must work passionately and unrelentingly for the goal of freedom, but we must be sure that our hands are clean in the struggle. We must never struggle with falsehood, hate, or malice. We must never become bitter. …
Stand up for justice. Sometimes it gets hard, but it is always difficult to get out of Egypt, for the Red Sea always stands before you with discouraging dimensions. And even after you’ve crossed the Red Sea, you have to move through a wilderness with prodigious hilltops of evil and gigantic mountains of opposition. But I say to you this afternoon: keep moving[.]
King’s 1957 speech serves as a wise motivational blueprint for moving forward, acknowledging there is no quick, simple solution to the kinds of challenges that now trouble us yet reminding us we can surmount overwhelming odds as others have done, and that trusting in God’s strength is essential.