Holy Week, 1968, both began and ended with the pall of Good Friday as the nation mourned the assassination of its greatest Negro leader and the civil-rights movement received its greatest martyr. Rarely had a clergyman so shaken a nation.

“I have seen the promised land,” said the gifted orator Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the night before he was shot. But his death carried no promise, only ironic dramatization of the impasse between races in America today, for a paroxysm of rioting, looting, arson, and murder in dozens of cities constituted a violent aftermath as senseless as the slaying in Memphis. A machine gun on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D. C., symbolized the nation’s barely concealed terror over what the coming weeks—and years—would bring.

The death of King and the ensuing violence had at least one positive effect, however. Congress on April 10 passed the first federal open housing law.

Although he was in the public eye only a dozen years, the 39-year-old Baptist minister at his death was probably the American most admired in many other nations. At home his power and glory were on the wane. The 1966 Chicago drive failed to yield lasting results. Newsmen saw his Washington Poor People’s Campaign as a last lunge to outflank militant black separatists, reaffirm the philosophy of effective nonviolence, and reassert King’s civil-rights leadership.

What that campaign, scheduled to begin this week, would have done to King’s movement is impossible to guess now. But friends and foes alike were edgy when a King-led march in the Memphis garbagemen’s strike degenerated into lawlessness, just days before the murder.

King lived daily with the knowledge that he was marked for death. When it came, its violence set in bold ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.