It hardly seems like almost fifty years have passed since we received the dreadful news from Memphis that an assassin’s bullet felled civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At that moment the nation was changed forever. The forward progress of the civil rights movement came to a screeching halt as the symbolic leader of the campaign for equal rights for Black Americans was murdered. Just the night before King had delivered a prophetic message, a premonition of his own death, as he appeared at a rally on behalf of city Black sanitation workers seeking a living wage.
When a king dies it is not unusual for his subjects to be at a loss; bewildered by the absence of the one who they turned to for guidance and direction. Much the same occurred when we lost our King. Though a valiant effort was made to continue along the path he set, the mud and muck of the tent city of the Poor People’s campaign in the nation’s capital put a period on a period of Black progress. With Dr. King gone, Black America appeared to be in the wilderness, searching for a Joshua who could fulfill the vision of our modern day Moses. And while others have come along, there have been none who have possessed the multiple skills that set Martin Luther King, Jr. apart as a leader and prophet.
We have literally been grabbing for straws since Dr. King was struck down on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Ironically, as Blacks were confounded in our attempt to transition post the civil and voting rights victories during the Johnson administration, other claims were being made using the energy and tactics of the Black struggle. The feminist movement took root and women, mostly white, found their voice against the backdrop of white male hegemony. Young people rallied in opposition to the Vietnam War and demanded the right to vote if the country expected them to be willing to die in a foreign land. Black youth challenged traditional Black adult leadership, including Dr. King, and created their own organizations to make demands upon society and sustain their community. But as a whole the Black community began to splinter in a thousand directions and as a Black middle class emerged, we began to see class divisions that pitted urban dwellers versus suburbanites.
This year’s somber anniversary of Dr. King’s death is followed closely by the 60th anniversary of the landmark United States Supreme Court decision in the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case. It is education to which we encourage Black Americans to focus their attention, as did Dr. King in his final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Confusion,” published posthumously. Education is the new civil rights battle and the battlefield is in urban and suburban communities across the country where Black children are being denied a quality education. In the book Dr. King stated, “The task is considerable; it is not merely to bring Negroes up to higher educational levels, but to close the gap between their educational levels and those of whites. If this does not happen, as Negroes advance educationally, whites will be moving ahead even more rapidly.” The prophet’s words still ring true in 2014. Education is the ground in which we must plant our flag. It is the great equalizer and can help reduce poverty, incarceration and stabilize Black families by strengthening their economic position. It is a fight that we must return to.
For those of us old enough to remember the awful feeling of this day in 1968 it is easy to get overwhelmed emotionally as we were all personally touched when we heard the news that Dr. King had been killed. We can’t afford to get emotional, we need to get organized. The greatest tribute we can pay to this great man is being relentless, unapologetic and radical in our demand for education equity. It is up to us to make certain that his death was not in vain.