My recollection is that we were sitting in 68 Vanderbilt Hall on the Yale campus in New Haven at 7:00 p.m. on April 4, 1968. Our ritual (and by “our” I mean five or six freshmen guys) was to gather nightly to watch the Walter Cronkite “Evening News” on Steve Dillon’s black-and-white, rabbit-eared television set. It was a Thursday evening and only four days earlier, Sunday night, March 31st, we had cheered and danced around the room when Lyndon Johnson announced “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President." Thursday night was a far more disturbing evening as we heard that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee. Sunday night’s elation became Thursday night’s disbelief and shock. Two months later, on June 5th, I would be back home in Bay Shore, on Long Island, staying up late to watch the results from the California Democratic primary when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.
It is difficult, almost 50 years later, to describe what it was like to experience the world in 1968 if you were a college student. Your high school years, beyond the predictable adolescent sturm und drang, had the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War as constant background. By the time I arrived on campus in September of 1967 my views about those subjects were coalescing into some notion about activism. SDS was already an entity, Dr. King and the SCLC, as well as SNCC, were part of the Nightly News, and college campuses were becoming the crucibles that would forge the massive dissent we would see in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. The Black Panthers were on the streets of New Haven, hawking their newspapers --- change was in the air.
A little remembered fact about April 4th, though, is that one year before his assassination, on April 4, 1967, Dr. King made a speech at Riverside Church in New York City to an audience of about 3,000 people in which he took a strong stand against the Vietnam War and called for a cessation of hostility and the negotiation of peace with the North Vietnamese being brought to the table as equal partners. As ’67 became ’68 Dr. King became more strident in his opposition to the war and it looked, for a while, as though the Civil Rights and the Anti-War movements might merge into one powerful movement, energized by idealistic young people and led by a new generation of politicians. People don’t remember --- or don’t even realize --- that Dr. King was only 39 and RFK was only 42 when they were gunned down. While conspiracy theories abound, we only know that those two powerful protest movements never did unite and, even more importantly, did not ever replace those inspirational leaders. For those of us who were young, idealistic, and still impressionable, the world changed, and changed forever.
I was going to write about the 1912 Progressive Party today, as a follow up to yesterday’s BLAST about historical patterns that repeat themselves. It’s a worthy topic but not so much as to not remember this date and its deep historical significance. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a brilliant and articulate voice for the rights of all people --- and when he began to equate the struggles of the Vietnamese with the struggles of African-Americans, when he began to publicly discuss American Imperialism at home and abroad, his days became numbered. On April 3, 1968, the night before he was killed, Dr. King prophetically (and eerily) declared:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!
What is particularly sad, on April 4, 2017, is that the “Promised Land” that Dr. King “saw” in 1968 is still quite illusory for many Americans --- and not just African-Americans. Poor whites, (legal/documented) immigrants, Latinos, and African-American citizens face discrimination and challenges on a daily basis --- in housing, education, and employment. There is still a long road to travel for the United States to live up to its promises. As Dr. King said in his famous “I Have A Dream” speech:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, . . . America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
On April 4, 2017, we do not appear ready to rectify that “bad check” but it is important we remember it is out there and, at some point, needs to provide the necessary funds --- morally, spiritually, and materially --- to all our citizens.