Editorial: Closer to King's 'promised land'

The MetroWest Daily News

For Americans of a certain age, 1968 holds a special place in memory, a dark place. It was a year when one trauma after another rattled the nation, a year that changed all that followed.

But 70 percent of Americans have no vivid memory of 1968. They were under 12 years old or not yet born on that day 40 when shots cut through the steamy afternoon air in Memphis. By nightfall, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was dead.

For many Americans, the reaction was stunned disbelief. Violence had shadowed the civil rights movement, especially in the South, but we'd hoped those battles had been won. For others, disbelief turned to rage. In cities across the country, black Americans took to the streets. Some set fires and looted stores. In the nation's capital, smoke from fires in mostly black neighborhoods wafted around the White House and the Capitol dome, a metaphor for the racial poison choking the nation's politics.

Back then, Martin Luther King then wasn't the beloved icon he is today. He was still detested by many Americans for demanding equality for all races. He was called a Communist, a revolutionary. The FBI tapped his phone. Government agents infiltrated his organization.

By 1968, King wasn't just fighting for civil rights. He had become an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and faced stern criticism for it, even from his civil rights allies. He was branded as unpatriotic and said to be hurting his cause.

Racism wasn't the only stain on America, King was saying in 1968. He was planning a new march on Washington to protest the persistent poverty that dragged down Americans of all races.

It was his crusade for economic justice that brought King to Memphis to lend support to that city's striking sanitation workers. The speech he gave the night before he was shot included calls to boycott Coca-Cola and white-owned banks, along with words that have haunted the nation ever since: "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life - longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now... 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."

King's assassination, and the riots that followed, weren't the end of the nightmares of 1968. Two months later, another assassin took Bobby Kennedy's life. Two months after that, Chicago police attacked demonstrators at the Democratic Convention. By the time that dark year ended, no one was sad to see it go.

It's tempting, but too easy, to find similarities in today's headlines. Again the country is mired in an unpopular war. Again, we're debating race in America. In the last month, hatred has been aimed at an African-American preacher who condemned America for its sins in the same prophetic tradition that inspired King's sermons.

But the differences outweigh the similarities. Today's most eloquent African-Leader isn't a minister leading protests, but a senator whose campaign for president has drawn support from Americans of all races, classes and ethnic groups. Americans will always have their disagreements, but we are not nearly as divided as we were in 1968.

Forty years after Martin Luther King's death, America has still not reached the promised land. But we are closer than we were, in no small part because he, and all who stood with him, pushed us in the right direction.