Following Martin Luther King in Life and Death

April 3, 2018

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America’s greatest civil rights, anti-poverty, and anti-war leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated half a century ago, on April 4, 1968. His was a profound influence on countless others in that tripartite revolution which he came to lead and still inspires. I speak here as one non-violent foot soldier who followed Dr. King’s lead in all three of those movements.

Regarding civil rights, I grew up in an all-white area of rural Kentucky, but—thanks to my parents—learned to treat people equally. My first black friend was Ronnie Meaux, a fellow art student at the University of Kentucky. Once, when we were refused service in an off-campus restaurant and I jumped up, spoiling for a fight, Ronnie threw his arms around me and dragged me outside for a talk. Dr. King’s messages—of nonviolent resistance and choosing your fight—spoke through him.

I was one of 10,000 who marched with King (and Jackie Robinson and Peter, Paul, and Mary) in the state capital on March 5, 1964, past riot police with guard dogs. The proposed public accommodations bill was voted down, but the march would become a catalyst for passage in 1966 of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act. Meanwhile, I helped form the Campus Committee on Human Rights at UK in 1965, its first order of business being to desegregate housing. The time was ripe and the university surrendered immediately. My civil rights work continued with the picketing of the federal building in Lexington, following the savage beating of protesters in Selma, Alabama, on “Bloody Sunday” 1965.

Poverty being a related issue, I went south for both in 1967, serving as a community organizer in Carroll County, Georgia, in VISTA (known as “the domestic peace corps”), part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. The previous volunteers—who were opposed for working with blacks—had been run out by vigilantes. I also participated in two successful, if dangerous camp-ins in Forsyth County, where blacks had been excluded since an ethnic cleansing in 1912. My most memorable day was April 5, 1968, when I heard a woman in my local restaurant announce King’s assassination in Memphis: “Well, they got the big [n-word]!”

Following Dr. King’s death I wore a black armband at his two Atlanta funeral services: the first, for his family, at Ebenezer Baptist Church (where I listened to loudspeakers outside), and (after a four-mile procession with some 50,000 mourners) the second, at Morehouse College for a public service. In walking past his open coffin, I was surprised at how small his body seemed—despite his great public stature.

In May 1968, two months before my volunteer service ended, I went to Washington on behalf of an underground newspaper to cover the camp-in known as Resurrection City. That shantytown of canvas and plywood on the National Mall lasted six weeks and culminated in an historic march. Although Dr. King had organized this Poor People’s Campaign, following his assassination it was carried out under Ralph Abernathy’s leadership.

Dr. King’s further influence on me was the stance he took, announced a year to the day before his assassination, against the Vietnam War. Already during university I had, for example, staffed an anti-war table and joined others to picket U.N. Ambassador Goldberg’s 1966 speech on campus. The following year, I traveled from Atlanta to Washington to participate in the famous March on the Pentagon—where I helped push over a fence and then was teargassed on the grounds—an event described in Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night.

My firm opposition to the war—steeled by Dr. King’s death—led me into Canada in late 1968. I thus became a federal fugitive, during which time FBI agents were sent to my hometown for my grandfather’s funeral, where, of course, I was conspicuously absent. (It was not a coincidence that, while in Canada, I co-produced for CBC radio an investigative documentary on James Earl Ray’s post-assassination flight there, in which I interviewed men whose names Ray used for false identity documents.) After eight and a half years of exile in 1977, I was pardoned by President Carter on his first full day in office.

I can scarcely imagine the life I would have had without Dr. King’s profound influence. Although I never met him, I feel I knew him very well. From time to time, in some situations, I think of him and how he would be likely to advise, so I still feel privy to his guidance.