Watched another documentary film last night. This one was titled, Citizen King, and it gave a lot of information Martin Luther King Jr. from the late 1950’s to his death in 1968. Because of our recent travels and research, I found that I already knew a lot of this information – up to the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the period of his life from then until 1968 had been kind of murky to me. Well, it almost seems to me now that this was a murky period for MLK as well. So many of his efforts in the earlier days came to fruition in 1964 and 1965 with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. These major legislative accomplishments surely were great victories for the Civil Rights Movement, but what happened afterward? If you’re the leader of a movement, and you accomplish a major victory, what do you do next?
How do you maintain the momentum? It seems that MLK had some difficulty with this.
He began to speak out against the war in Vietnam. That cost him his supportive relationship with the White House. Since President Johnson had earlier been an ally, and had, in a sense stood between MLK and J. Edgar Hoover, it was quite costly to MLK to lose LBJ as an ally. I wonder if J. Edgar Hoover was now free to unleash the power of the FBI against MLK in a way that he hadn’t been released to do previously.
MLK began to focus his attention on poverty. He also tried to widen his influence in order to try to impact the problems of northern, urban blacks. As I noted in a previous post, MLK did not grow up in poverty. He also, clearly, did not grow up in the north. When he went to Chicago in 1966, he found a world that was different from his experience. “I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today,” he said, according to the Chicago Tribune on Aug. 5, 1966. I may be naïve, but it seems to me that he was surprised to find that the difficulties of northern, urban blacks were much more profound than he had expected. It almost seems like the problems of Jim Crow, as horrific as they were, were small in comparison to what he was now seeing. Of course, the problems of urban poverty and economic segregation have yet to be resolved, so clearly these were much bigger and thornier issues than Jim Crow. Jim Crow could be addressed through legislation and litigation. Poverty is another whole issue.
So, am I reading this period of MLK’s life correctly? Was he in a time of murkiness? Or am I just reading that into history?