Sometimes the burden of history is most damaging to the martyrs. Those gunned down in their prime leave the world with too much unfinished business. We embrace the martyrs because that seems the only thing we can do. Perhaps it’s a misplaced religiosity. We naturally cling to the faith of our parents, reach some sort of awakening that shatters this obedience, but the slain martyrs we see alive one day and gone the next become easier to embrace.
For those who came of age in the ’60s, and even those of us born in the middle of that decade who easily took to the slain trinity of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., canonization was a way of life. Their portraits took honored places on our walls. Their imperfections were open secrets during their lives only to be gradually and conclusively revealed through the decades. Still, we grasped on to these martyrs as if our lives depended on it. Heroes were impossible to find and even more difficult to retain.
In Jason Sokol’s comprehensive and illuminating new book The Heavens Might Crack: The Death And Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., there’s an understandable emphasis on the second part of that story. We know what happened on 4 April 1968, on the balcony of the Loraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee. He had been in the city to organize the Memphis Sanitation Strike and set the seeds for his Poor People’s Campaign. The bold yet palatable 34-year-old preacher, who so inspired and mobilized a nation in August 1963 with his “I Have a Dream” speech at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, had transformed. That peaceful fierceness and allegiance to non-violence was still there. The Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, and King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December of that year. There were more marches, more confrontations, but King was headed for a path that would make even some of his most fervent supporters uneasy. Sokol writes:
“For every badge of mainstream success King collected — the hundreds of honorary degrees and magazine covers, the meetings in the White House, the Nobel Peace Prize — he received an equal measure of scorn and revulsion.”
This is the key theme of Sokol’s book and he takes it through some complex twists and turns. He might be covering familiar ground for some, but it’s still important to understand. Just consider the optics. This 39-year-old Atlantan, born in 1929, earned his Doctorate at Boston University in 1955, and rose through the ranks of his social circles with razor-sharp confidence and determination. He followed non-violence and it cost him his life. Sokol carefully illustrates how King’s death gave a natural and eventually fated legitimacy to The Black Panthers. Malcolm X had been killed in 1965. Sokol’s mission isn’t to examine the differences between the two, but it’s understood that with the loss of King in April 1968, nothing would ever be the same.
“He returned to Memphis on April 3, and this time he chose the Loraine Motel… shabbier than the Rivermont and patronized almost exclusively by African-Americans… he was ‘re-learning, what had made him great,’ wrote the… journalist Garry Wills, ‘learning what motels to stay at; what style to use, what were his roots.'”
A half-century after King’s death, this is what needs to be understood. He had spoken about climbing to the mountaintop, but the clearer fact was that he couldn’t go there first unless and until he went back down into the valley. The strengths of The Heavens Might Crack are numerous, not the least among them being the careful details Sokol brings to Chapter One, “Losing King”. At a press conference Coretta King gave shortly before she appeared at Spelman on the journey that would take her newly slain husband to his final resting place, she made clear it was understood the type of legacy she wanted to immediately be remembered:
“‘He gave his life for the poor of the world, the garbage workers of Memphis and the peasants of Vietnam.'”
The picture Sokol paints of King’s funeral service is still heartbreaking, so many years later. Actor Ossie Davis and singer/actor Harry Belafonte appear. Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis, Jr., Eartha Kitt, and Sidney Poitier sit in a pew in front of James Baldwin. Sokol takes his title from Baldwin’s comment about the mood: “‘The atmosphere was black… with a tension indescribable-as though something, perhaps the heavens, perhaps the earth, might crack.” More optics happen when the coffin containing King’s body is transported in a mule-led wagon. Sokol notes that while celebrities were visible at the service, few of them made it to the cemetery: “Some lacked the stamina for the seemingly interminable day of mourning… they lacked the commitment.” Many (celebrities or politicians) who had tried to crucify King for his anti-Vietnam War stance made themselves visible only when the opportunity worked in their favor. Sokol writes: “On this day, with their hypocrisy barely disguised, they sought photo opportunities under the boiling Georgia sun.”
In Chapter Two, “The Last Prince of Non-Violence”, Sokol widens the picture by including the radicalization of a student named Aaron Dixon. Floyd McKissick, of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), declared ” ‘Non-violence is a dead philosophy… It was not the black people that killed it…” The story of Stokely Carmichael, who started his public life as an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), has also been comprehensively covered elsewhere. He was dedicated to non-violence at SNCC, but he became radicalized. Sokol notes that Carmichael was a peacemaker in DC in the wake of King’s assassination. The picture wasn’t just random looting, or rage that finally seemed to have a reason. Sokol writes: “If the racist ‘system’ had a face, it was the white storeowner.” New York’s Mayor Lindsay visits Harlem in the immediate aftermath of King’s death. Singer James Brown helps save Boston from riots by going on with a scheduled 5 April concert at The Garden.
The racial divisions and war at home was a virus that also infected the war in Vietnam. “Black soldiers in Vietnam drew closer together. ‘After the assassination of Dr. M.L. King you could also feel the malcontent,'” says one soldier. Another replies: “‘We all got to dig in and fight for our race now.'” The story of the Black Panthers may be more complicated and hard to contain within this narrative, but Sokol does his best. Personalities like Bobby Seale, Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver are difficult to cast as supporting characters, but it’s necessary in The Heavens Might Crack. What we see as this story develops is the fact that everything and everybody involved needs to be considered. King was an enormous presence and a steadfast advocate for nonviolence, but there was more to the story. “The growth of the Black Panther Party became the most significant marker of the shift towards militancy,” he writes. King’s death was not the catalyst but yet another element of a larger picture that included racial uprisings in Watts (1965) and Detroit and Newark (1967). The murder by police of Bobby Hutton, on 6 April 1968, automatically connected this young Black Panther recruit (their first) with King and the rise of the Panthers:
“‘He was like my little brother that I never had,’ Huey Newton remembered. ‘He was the inspiration of the party.'”
Sokol writes clearly and succinctly about the ways politicians danced around the legacy of King in the immediate aftermath of his loss. “White contempt for King knew no geographical bounds,” he writes. We know the hatred of King that came from people like former KKK Wizard and West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd. “He called King a ‘self-seeking rabble-rouser’ who undoubtedly encouraged the violence in Memphis. King ‘gets other people into trouble and then takes off like a scared rabbit.'” We know the way Strom Thurmond despised King. The litany of hate that came from others, unexpected or not, remains confounding after so many years, yet perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising. The literary attacks against King, after his death, seem similar to the frantic defenses of Trump that are surfacing online or at any local brick and mortar bookstore with space and dignity to spare. Sokol writes of House Divided, a book by conservative critic (to put it lightly) Lionel Lokos, released four months after King’s death:
“The King of House Divided is a demagogue who wrought violence and chaos, justified riots, and romanticized the Vietcong…[he should] … ‘be ranked among the most colossal failures of all time.'”
The litany of hate can be overwhelming to a reader who might want simple answers to complex issues. Individual disdain from random citizens, politicians and writers spread through to uprisings on college campuses like North Carolina’s Duke University and New York City’s Columbia. Regarding the latter, Sokol brings in Mark Rudd, another name familiar to those who have studied the era, Rudd was the chairman of Columbia’s Students for a Democratic Society chapter. Sokol nicely captures the scene at Columbia. It was at the memorial for King, and Rudd delivered a fiery attack against the administration regarding its land grab practices, disrespect of unions, and ban on demonstrations. It’s amazing to consider that all this was happening in Spring 1968. The whole world was watching, as the chant told us, but more was going to happen.
How did the world react to the death of King? Many South Africans hated him during his lifetime, and after. It could be argued that the majority of white America, the soon to be named (by Richard Nixon) “silent majority”, hated the radical King had become.The discussion of how profoundly the people of West Germany were moved by his loss makes the reader wish there was more space to tell the story. The story of Britain’s despicable Conservative leader Enoch Powell and his venom-filled “Rivers of Blood” speech in the wake of King’s death brings to mind the huge swath of “alt. right” names and voices that have polluted the United States with the presence of Donald Trump and his administration:
“On April 20… Powell gave himself fully to racial fears… [he spoke] ‘in this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.’
Understandably, India seemed to put him in perspective. Sokol writes:
“Since his initial exposure to Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings, King had felt a strong connection to the people of India… On April 5, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi spoke before parliament… She called King’s assassination ‘a setback to mankind’s search for light.'”
Life does have a way of coming full circle, of returning to damaged times, and the reader will only be frustrated by reading current accounts of we have regressed in the area of gun control legislation. Sokol writes of the NRA’s annual convention in Boston less than 48 hours after King’s death.
“Ted Kennedy was scheduled to address the convention on Palm Sunday… In the exhibit hall, some vendors even hawked the Italian rifles known as ‘Kennedy specials’-distastefully named after their use in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.”
Alas, the more we change, the more we remain the same. Later in the chapter, “Stop the Shots”, Sokol nicely covers the moment in Indianapolis when Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy addressed a mostly African-American crowd on the night of King’s death and told them the news. Sokol brings in Congressman John Lewis to recall the moment he saw Robert Kennedy address in public (for the first time) the death of his brother John:
“…’To do it that night was an incredibly powerful and connective and emotionally honest gesture. He stripped himself down. He made it personal. He made it real…'”
Gun control in 1968 seemed to be as stalled as it is in 2018. Sokol notes that the violence of the ’60s only seemed to energize the gun lobby. Urban riots created a cycle of fear and loathing that remains potent today. President Ronald Reagan, survivor of an assassination attempt in 1981, signed the Firearm Owner’s Protection Act in 1986, the first year of the Nation’s Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, weakening the already unstable status of gun control and regulation.
In Chapter 7, “From Outlaw to Saint”, Sokol elaborates on the long and tortuous effort to enact the official Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday. The hatred of New Hampshire Governor Meldrim Thompson towards anything related to King seemed to echo sentiments in Arizona. Protest and celebratory songs by artists as disparate as Stevie Wonder and Public Enemy served to at least keep the discussion open, and the national holiday was finally signed into law in 1986. Of course, the greatest irony here is that then President Ronald Reagan managed to paint himself as a natural spokesman for King and the cause of a national holiday:
“Reagan shaped King into a rugged individualist and asserted that he was carrying on King’s legacy.”
No matter how fervently career politicians claimed they had changed their views, one thing remained constant: wherever and whenever there was a chance to capitalize on shifting changes in national sentiment or perspective, the politician most interested in maintaining their job followed the flow. From the raising or lowering of flags to the naming of streets (in primarily African-American neighborhoods) after King, everything came with a price and consequences.
How do Americans see Martin Luther King 50 years after his death? How should we see him? Sokol effectively manages to bring us through to the here and now, to the election of President Barack Obama and the death of scores of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of police. Sokol clearly notes the connection between the reception of the Black Lives Matter movement in some areas and the struggle (to this day) to define all aspects of King’s life and times:
“When the opponents of Black Lives Matter reference King, they conveniently ignored the massive disruptions that King organized throughout the nation. He did so week after week, year after year. For that he was scorned and reviled.”
As we enter the second quarter of 2018, mid-term elections, an increasing sense of divisiveness through race, economic disparities, and the looming specter of war anywhere and everywhere as a means of distraction, Sokol’s The Heavens Might Crack should serve as a critical reminder of what Americans are capable of. This work is an important addition to an already impressive library of civil rights narratives and Martin Luther King biographies. King was a monolith of a man in his time and remains so today, but he was also a rebel, a necessary disrupter, a thorn in the feet of all who stood in his way, and any reminder of that should help us deal with the dark times ahead.