Martin Luther King Jr.: Menace II (Racist) Society

As a callow boy, I used to confuse Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. Fortunately, that ignorant conflation didn’t last too long and I soon got the two of them sorted out. The first one complicated my understanding of Christianity, the second that of my home for twenty-five years, the United States of America, the nation whose passport I carry, and whose citizenship my daughter has acquired by birth.

I have written on this blog about events that modified my relationship with the US: a viewing of Tora, Tora, Tora!, and my reading of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The first brought down the US from a pedestal of invincibility, the second from one of moral superiority. A third event did the same as the second. A solitary viewing of a documentary on the US civil rights movement, one that exposed me to the spoken words of Dr. King, and one searing visual after another of the slow, painful, and as yet incomplete, fight against institutionalized racism. (While I cannot remember precisely which documentary I am referring to, Mukul Kesavan, in his essay ‘On Watching Documentaries’ remembers watching one titled King in approximately the same time period; I have, however, not been able to track that title down.)

I watched the documentary alone, late at night in New Delhi, at my grandparent’s residence.  For some reason, the national television station had decided the best time to show it was at a time when most folks would have turned in for the night. I do not know why I was spending the night at my grandmother’s and I do not know how and why I had the run of the roost as far the television room was concerned. (It was my grandparent’s bedroom.) Be that as it may, I was alone, and I was curious.

The documentary began with the speech given by Dr. King on April 3rd 1968, the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. The words of the speech, in white, scrolled up the screen against a black background, while Dr. King’s voice played on the soundtrack. It was the first time I had heard him speak; it was the first time I had heard any speech from the civil rights movement; it was the first time I was exposed to that potent combination of preacher, professor and politician. I had never heard a speech like that before in that cadence and rhythm, with that passion and eloquence. By the time it ended, I was primed for the spectacle–composed wholly of archival footage–that followed. When that was over, a cavalcade of impressions ending with King’s assassination, the hapless women on the Memphis motel balcony pointing in the direction the assassin had gone, I was stunned, speechless, and heartbroken.

Water cannons, feral Southern policemen, brave schoolchildren, angry racist women and children screaming obscenities, devious politicians grimly determined to not let their racist citadels fall, snarling dogs, grim, composed, determined marchers for freedom and dignity, the abuse of those asking for a chance to exercise adult franchise; these are the components of the by-now-iconic set of images that we associate with those points in time. They are familiar now, but they have not bred contempt. Perhaps all of us can remember when we were first exposed to them; perhaps we can remember the effect they had. This is my very partial attempt to do so.

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