Fifty-four years ago—on April 4, 1968—Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
Exactly one year earlier—on April 4, 1967—Dr. King created a huge furor by coming out strongly against the Vietnam War before a packed crowd at New York’s Riverside Church. For the remaining months of his too-short life, King poured himself into an effort to forge an interracial movement among the poor, whose cause had been abandoned by a Lyndon Johnson determined to prevail in a hopeless and immoral war. King knew he would be killed, and he also knew that his “disloyalty” in challenging the war and calling for a thoroughgoing transformation of values would be the underlying reason.
For many this is ancient history, irrelevant to the lives they live now. But for others who understand the stakes, that Riverside speech still points the way to the only possible human future: one in which human beings matter more than property and profits, one in which we finally reckon with the catastrophic costs of militarism and racism, and one in which each of us is liberated from a violence so pervasive that we may not even see it.
For the keepers of King’s dream, both young and old, violence is the common thread uniting racial and economic and patriarchal oppressions. It’s a violence rooted in the 500 years of colonialism and white supremacy that shaped and still shape the deformed culture we all inhabit.
White people may not see the violence, but they feel it at what we might call the amygdala level: in the struggle to get ahead in a winner-take-all culture, in the toll that struggle takes in damaging personal relations and susceptibility to addictions, in the deference shown to “superiors” and the contempt directed toward people further down in the pecking order.
For many others, the violence of the American caste system is only too visible in the form of militarized policing and racist mass incarceration; brutal housing and educational segregation; 330 million guns in private hands; and the rotten pay and conditions of the jobs most US workers are compelled to take in order to survive.
Martin King saw clearly, and way ahead of his time, how violence had become—and still remains—normalized in a society experiencing what he called “spiritual death.” He saw how white Americans, having originally put shackles and manacles on the bodies of others, also put shackles and manacles—and blinders—on themselves.