Ronald Reagan signed the bill creating the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in November 1983, fifteen years after King’s death.
I would be remiss if I did not pause and write a few words on this, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I was less than a year old when he was killed in Memphis. Oddly however, the older I get the more events like this seem less like “history” and more like current events. Here in full-blown middle-age, my entire concept of time has evolved. When my father was alive he lived within a few hour’s drive from Memphis. I visited each summer I would usually borrow his car and take an overnight side trip to somewhere or other. More than once that place was Memphis. I visited the Lorraine Hotel, site of the King assassination and home today to the National Civil Rights Museum, more than once. Walking in the vicinity one could see the empty lots that were the results of the riots and, later, urban renewal. I have not been there now in many years, but I believe that gentrification is at last moving things along.
I remember when MLK Jr. Day became a holiday in the early 1980s. Again, at the time I thought his death was part of some ancient past, and yet the creation of the holiday was only fifteen years after the shooting. The evolution of the holiday itself has a convoluted history, one mired in national and even international events. A search of the New York Times digital archive from 1983 pulls up all kinds of articles about the unresolved issues of the Civil Rights Movement as well as commentary from TASS, the Soviet news agency, offering their cynical take on the drama of the holiday hanging in the balance. When King was assassinated the Tet Offensive was in its fifth week. Bobby Kennedy gave the eulogy for King and would himself be assassinated two months later. All that spring and summer there were riots and political upheaval across the United States, in Paris, Czechoslovakia, and Mexico City just before the Summer Olympics.
Viewed a certain way, King’s activities can be seen in the context of the World Wars. His assassination came just fifty years after Woodrow Wilson issued his Fourteen Points, and twenty-seven years after FDR announced the Four Freedoms in his January 1941 State of the Union address. King knew these things. It is not an accident that the Civil Rights Movement here in the U.S., and Independence Movements around the world, developed how and when they did. One can’t help but think of things like Ho Chi Minh at Versailles after the Armistice pleading his case for an independent Vietnam. King was reluctant to speak publicly against Lyndon Johnson because of all the president had done for Civil Rights, but in the year before his assassination King’s denunciations of the war in Southeast Asia became increasingly strident. In the library where I work, over the past fifteen years, a colleague and I have been ordering the King Papers as they have incrementally released. The historiography on the release of someone’s correspondence is itself a fascinating genre. History is a humbling thing and the deeper one goes the more one sees the relationships between what are very complicated events.
(image/White House Photo Office)