Justice  /  Book Excerpt

After the Murder

Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination was the fateful moment that the wave of hope finally broke for Black America.

Malcolm’s murder wasn’t an event on the margins that threatened to creep into the main, however. And in its refusal to recognize Malcolm and what he represented as legitimate, The New York Times and others underestimated just how much his assassination would affect Black Americans, even those who disagreed with his ideology.

Responding to the news of Malcolm’s assassination, King wrote in a statement: “A man who lived under the torment of knowledge of the rape of his grandmother and murder of his father, and under the conditions of the present social order, does not readily accept that social order or seek to integrate into it. And so Malcolm was forced to live and die as an outsider, a victim of the violence that spawned him, and with which he courted through his brief but promising life . . . Surely the young men of Harlem and Negro communities throughout the nation ought to be ready to seek another way.”

They were not. Indeed, Malcolm’s assassination further radicalized the constituency he represented. It was, perhaps, the first in a series of assassination that would chart the slow death of the Civil Rights Movement, kindling for the fire to come.

With Malcolm’s assassination came greater militancy and urgency in some segments of Black America. As early as 1963, individual run-ins with police were erupting into larger conflicts in cities across America and the summer of 1964 saw seven riots — in Rochester, New York City, Philadelphia, Jersey City, Paterson, Elizabeth, and Chicago — events all initiated by police incidents of brutality against Blacks. However, the summer after Malcolm was assassinated saw a massive riot in Los Angeles, a city where he’d organized against police brutality years before.

The predominantly Black section of Watts went up in flames when residents took to the streets in response to reports that a 21-year-old resident had been pulled over, beaten, and arrested by members of the California Highway Patrol. The following year, 1966, riots broke out in Cleveland, Chicago and San Francisco.

By this point, it was clear that King’s dream and the hope it represented were beginning to fade from the American consciousness. In fact, in 1966 — just three years after his “I Have A Dream” speech” — King himself expressed his disillusionment in an interview with CBS’ Mike Wallace. It was in this interview that he called riots, “the language of the unheard.” “And, what is it that America has failed to hear?” he added. “It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”