By Moses Kamuiru
In April of 1968, shock waves reverberated worldwide with the news that U.S. civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. A Baptist minister, King, had led the civil rights movement since the mid-1950s, using a combination of powerful words and non-violent tactics such as sit-ins, boycotts and protest marches which included the massive March on Washington in 1963 to fight segregation and achieve significant civil and voting rights advances for Blacks in America. His assassination led to an outpouring of anger among African Americans, as well as a period of national mourning that helped speed the way for an equal housing bill that would be the last significant legislative achievement of the civil rights era.
During his sunset years, King was confronted by growing criticism from young black activists who favored a more confrontational approach to seeking change and a new way of life. These young men and women embraced the ideals of the Black Nationalist leader Malcolm X who was assassinated in 1965, who had condemned King’s advocacy of non-violence as “criminal” in the face of the continuing repression suffered by African Americans. As a result of this opposition, King sought to widen his appeal beyond his race, speaking out publicly against the war in Vietnam and working to form a coalition of poor Americans–black and white alike–to address such issues as unemployment and poverty.
The Assassination of King
Just after 6 p.m., King was standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where he and associates were staying, when a sniper’s bullet struck him in the neck. He was rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead about an hour later, at the age of 39. Shock and distress over the news of King’s death sparked rioting in more than a hundred cities around the country, including burning and looting. Amid a wave of national mourning, President Lyndon B. Johnson urged Americans to reject the blind violence that had killed King, whom he referred to as the apostle of nonviolence. He also called on Congress to speedily pass the civil rights legislation then entering the House of Representatives for debate, calling it a fitting legacy to King and his life’s work. On April 11, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act.
The Impact of the Assassination
Though black and white Americans alike mourned the death of King, the killing in some ways served to widen the rift between black and white American, as many African Americans saw King’s assassination as a rejection of their vigorous pursuit of equality through the nonviolent resistance he had championed. His murder, like the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, radicalized many moderate black activists, fueling the growth of the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party in the late 60s and early 70s.
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