A history of the passionate responses generated by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Five decades after his death, King stands as one of the most admired individuals of the 20th century. But when he was killed on April 4, 1968, he was a divisive figure: lauded and beloved by some; feared and reviled by many. J. Edgar Hoover called him a “degenerate,” and Strom Thurmond damned him as a disruptive agitator. Drawing on archival sources, oral histories, interviews, and local, national, and even college newspapers, Sokol (History/Univ. of New Hampshire; All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn, 2014, etc.) offers a richly detailed analysis of the impact of King’s death on blacks and whites of all stripes. In the immediate aftermath, King’s killing “intensified a debate among African Americans about the virtues of nonviolence versus armed resistance.” Some joined the Black Panthers, who had gained followers even while King was alive. By the end of 1968, the group had established chapters in nearly 20 cities. Their appeal, writes the author, “was obvious: they were bold and fiery, intelligent and confrontational.” The rage that fueled the Panthers also stoked racial hatred among whites, which intensified as cities erupted in looting and riots. That violence led to support for gun control laws among white Americans who wanted to keep guns out of the hands of black rioters. On college campuses, King’s death inspired activism that had been focused on opposition to the Vietnam War. Suddenly, students saw the urgency of responding to issues of racial injustice. Sokol closely examines the trajectory of events at Duke University, where a weeklong silent vigil transformed both an apathetic student body and a conservative administration. International acclaim followed King’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and surged after his death, especially in developing nations. By the 1980s in the U.S., King’s message had become “scrubbed” until it threatened no one.
A revealing examination of how a “courageous dissident” became a martyred saint.