Three days after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Nina Simone performed a song written by bass player Gene Taylor at a music festival in New York entitled ‘Why? (The King of Love is Dead).’ King’s life and legacy embody the perils of freedom fighting, while exemplifying the struggle for equality through civil disobedience. On the day of his death 50 years ago, riots and unrest erupted across the country, and Nashville was no exception. Metro police engaged in a gun battle with enraged rioters, and overturned cars were bombarded by rocks. The city was plagued by gunfire and looting as people were arrested, and others rushed to the hospital with severe injuries. Hundreds of Vanderbilt University students participated in marches and memorial services at St. Mary’s Catholic Church to honor the late civil rights leader. On the morning of April 6, students at Tennessee A&I State University (now Tennessee State University), engaged in a standoff with Metro police before the three dorms on campus were searched for weapons. As citizens expressed their outrage of the assassination of Dr. King, the American South became the scene of gruesome racial violence and tension overnight.
As Nashville honored Dr. King on April 4, 2018, I found myself asking: why was The King of Love allowed to be killed? It couldn’t have been because no one thought it could happen. W.E.B. Dubois, legendary author, scholar, and graduate of Fisk University stated before his death in 1963 that King was definitely vulnerable to a potential assassination attempt. So why was it allowed to happen? I’m not the only one who thinks this way.
“They did it on purpose,” a student told me one night as we sat studying over a spread of open textbooks, “to put fear in the Black community.” I had just started a discussion on Dr. King’s death, and asked my peers to share their thoughts. “If you kill the peaceful leader, where do we turn? Who can help?” We sat, staring off into the distance, nodding our heads in agreement. “Stagnant.” That was one of the most powerful words of the night, and unfortunately, it came in reference to the current status of the Black community. While Martin Luther King ignited unprecedented mobilization within Black America, and is now celebrated across the globe, honored both on the day of his birth and death, we can’t forget that he was extremely unpopular among many at the time of his passing. Jackie Kennedy, famous wife of perhaps the most charismatic president in United States history, mentioned in 1963, “I just can’t see a picture of Martin Luther King without thinking, you know, that man’s terrible.” Based on that statement, it’s reasonable to believe that 50 years ago, thoughts of ever setting aside a day to honor the civil rights leader would have been far from the minds of the very people living in the White House. In contrast, Donald Trump honored Martin Luther King in January of 2018, calling him a “great American hero.”
Ordinarily, I may have just nodded my head and told myself, that’s progress, right? But a liberal arts, HBCU education (as well as Trump’s obviously racist track record), has caused me to think critically about this apparent, and drastic presidential flip-flop. If Trump may be faking his admiration for Martin Luther King, then who else is? We live in a racially volatile climate. In 2018, America is home to White supremacists, separatists, and those who adamantly defend Donald Trump’s racist, xenophobic rhetoric. Yet somehow, every year, we come together to celebrate a Black man who fought for the liberation of Black people. Is it symbolic, or is it real? Will it be symbolic, or real when Nashvillians gather together downtown, and in churches and museums on April 4 to honor King’s death?
As Nashville continues to expand in size and diversity, the need for us to at least recognize the struggle that minorities have faced in this country increases, and the need for this recognition to be genuine grows as well. While much of America may only extend their thoughts to the Black struggle, and the legacy of Martin Luther King on one day out of the year, the weight of his death weighs heavily on those affected most by his death, in the form of covert racism and micro-aggressions everyday. Bandwagon awareness of racism, and lukewarm support for minority rights will not suffice in regards to the fight for true Black liberation.
The love that Dr. King had for others is not some rare quality reserved for a chosen few. It’s in all of us. And although it is great to reflect on the courage of Martin Luther King, it’s even better to foster that same love in ourselves, and in the next generation. As the late civil rights leader said in a 1957 sermon, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”