Martin Luther King showed us how to handle populist hate

Fifty years ago today, about 6pm central time, Martin Luther King Jr stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and waited for his friends to join him. They were off to dinner, celebrating a court victory.

At that moment, across the way at Bessie Brewer’s Memphis boarding house, the inhabitant of room 5B poked his Remington Gamemaster out of the window of the communal bathroom, took careful aim with the aid of his Redfield scope, and shot King dead.

James Earl Ray did not act alone. From the moment he was arrested, more than two months later at Heathrow airport (he was apprehended with the words “I say old fellow, would you mind stepping over here for a moment”), carrying the proceeds of a robbery of the Fulham branch of the Trustee Savings Bank, he started lying. Some of his lies were hopeless. He told his lawyer he was called Ramon Sneyd and had never heard of James Ray. Then he told the solicitor to call his brother. What’s your brother’s name? “Jerry Ray,” he replied.

Other lies have dazzled conspiracy theorists for years, particularly an entirely fictitious co-conspirator Ray conjured up, called “Raoul”. The truth is both simpler and more complicated. It was Ray who thought up the plot to kill King, Ray who stalked the civil rights leader for months, Ray who bought the gun, Ray who rented the room, Ray who stood in Mrs Brewer’s bath leaving his handprint on the wall, and Ray who pulled the trigger.

And yet he did not act alone.

As Hampton Sides writes in his book Hellhound on his Trail, in the days after the killing, “finding and punishing the assassin were surprisingly low in [King’s friends’ and allies’] scheme of priorities”. As King’s aide Andrew Young put it, “we aren’t so much concerned with who killed Martin, as with what killed him”. And what killed him wasn’t just James Ray.

The night before King died he gave an address at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ that turned out to be his final speech. He spoke of death and said he would like to live a long life: “longevity has its place”. But it “really doesn’t matter with me now” because “I’ve been to the mountain top”. He expressed his confidence that his people would make it to the promised land but added “I may not get there with you”. His final sentences were these: “So I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

This would count as remarkable prophecy were it not for the fact that for more than a decade King had been walking in the valley of the shadow of death. The very morning of that final speech his plane had been delayed by a threat to his life. And to read Taylor Branch’s volumes on the history of the civil rights movement is to encounter murder in chapter after chapter. The racist politics of the South were violent and there was a gun round every corner. When John F Kennedy was assassinated, Martin Luther King turned sadly to his wife, Coretta, and said: “This is what will happen to me.”

So part of the responsibility for the death of King lies with southern politicians like George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, who stood in the schoolhouse door to stop African American children attending “white” schools. James Ray was signed up to Wallace’s 1968 campaign for the presidency.

The politics of George Wallace do not sound unfamiliar to the modern ear. He rejected the idea that he was a racist or leading a “backlash against anyone of colour”. He defended segregation as a “backlash against big government”. He led, he said, a “movement of the people”. His strutting and snarling sustained people like James Ray.

And part of the responsibility lies with the FBI and its director, J Edgar Hoover. Instead of protecting King, they were spying on him. It was Hoover of whom Lyndon Johnson said that he’d rather have him on the inside of the tent pissing out. And King was the person outside the tent that, above all others, Hoover aimed at.

FBI agents did whatever Hoover told them. Once he wrote “watch the borders” on a memo and they set up an operation in California, only to discover he was complaining about the memo’s margins. The FBI bugged King’s hotel rooms, recorded his numerous affairs and sent the tape to his home, where the package was opened by Coretta. The accompanying letter told King to kill himself.

The responsibility lay with those like the mayor of Memphis, whose resistance to the minimal demands of the refuse workers had brought King to his city, with all those local police forces who failed to defend civil rights workers, and with all those who turned a blind eye because they wanted the segregationists in their coalition.

So James Earl Ray did not act alone and this is important to understand if the greatness of Martin Luther King Jr and his gift to the ages is to be properly appreciated.

Martin Luther King was great because of his courage in pursuit of a moral end. He had been jailed 18 times, his house was firebombed, he had been punched in the face, stabbed in the chest, struck on the head by a rock. He had known for years that one day he would be killed. Yet he kept marching.

He was great because he was defiant. The campaign against segregation and then for the vote defied not just southern refusal but also northern dilatoriness. In a famous speech, King said his approach was characterised by three words. “All”: African Americans must have all the rights of American citizens; “here”: they must have these rights in the South, where they lived; and “now”: the country must act immediately. And he never became a comfortable figure. He opposed the Vietnam war and when he died was organising a campaign for economic rights for the poor, which fizzled without him.

His greatness lay also, perhaps above all, in his restraint. And when you see the pressure on him you see how magnificent that was. King came to Memphis that fateful day because an earlier protest march had turned violent and he would not carry on leading it. He insisted on non-violence in the face of the most severe provocation. He was in court that final day too because he needed to win federal permission to march. He never broke a federal injunction.

Review the life of Winnie Mandela: how, with all her great contribution to the struggle, she cracked under the enormous forces ranged against her. How she turned to violence and dictatorial behaviour and financial misdeeds. Then you can see the true greatness of Martin Luther King Jr. And understand what it takes to win victory in the eternal battle between hate and love.

Daniel Finkelstein

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