“It is not an overstatement to say that the destiny of the entire human race depends on what is going on in America today. This is a staggering reality to the rest of the world; they must feel like passengers in a supersonic jetliner who are forced to watch helplessly while a passel of drunks, hypes, freaks, and madmen fight for the controls and the pilot’s seat.”
– Eldridge Cleaver, “Soul on Ice” (1968)
As we embark upon 2018, we step into the 50th anniversary of a year that shook the world.
Perhaps the most momentous of these events are the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. Both of these tragic deaths hold personal significance for my family.
My parents, civil rights activists, were personally acquainted with the Rev. King. My mother, Sybil Morial, and King were students together at Boston University while she pursued her master’s degree in education and he his Ph.D. in theology. In her memoir “Witness to Change,” she writes of the moment on April 4 when she learned of his death:
I could hardly grasp the words: Martin Luther King has been shot to death in Memphis. Dutch was in the study. I called to him, and he came and stood by me. “Martin has been killed.” I could hardly say the words; I could hardly believe it. Not Martin. Dutch and I watched the gruesome footage in silence.
She recalled the words of his final speech, “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.”
He knew it, but we didn’t. And we didn’t understand his death. I was inconsolable … I said to Dutch, “Now that Martin is gone, what will become of the movement?” “It will go on. It must.”
At RFK’s death
My late father-in-law, Ross Miller, was a trauma surgeon and Kennedy campaigner who was present at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5. When the shots rang out, he bravely stepped forward and tried to save the lives of Kennedy and others who were wounded.
These deaths are but two of the civil rights milestones of that historic year half a century ago.
On February 8, the Orangeburg Massacre took place in South Carolina. Highway Patrol officers opened fire on a crowd of 200 student gathered on the campus of South Carolina State University to demonstrate against the continued segregation at the bowling alley. Three young men were killed and 27 other protesters were injured.
On April 11, amid continuing unrest triggered by King’s murder, President Lyndon Johnson signed one of the most significant laws of the era: the Civil Rights Act of 1968, more commonly known as the Fair Housing Act. The Act prohibited not only racial and religious discrimination in the sale or rental of a home, but also racially-motivated threats, intimidation or retaliation in relation to housing.
In a move often cited as inspiration by current-day activists, on October 2, Black Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their arms in a “Black Power” salute after winning the gold and bronze medals in the men’s 200 meters.
November 22 saw the first interracial kiss ever to air on television in the United States, between the characters Captain James Kirk and Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, on the program “Star Trek.”
In the coming year, we will observe many of these anniversaries in depth. We begin the year reflection on a half-century of civil rights progress, and the progress that lies ahead.
Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.