As we commemorate the life and works of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, it’s worth contemplating what might have been if he’d stuck with his original itinerary and traveled to Virginia.
King was slated to tour seven Virginia cities, beginning on March 30, 1968, in preparation for the upcoming Poor People’s Campaign in Washington. But at the last minute, he canceled the Virginia trip and traveled to Memphis, Tenn., to support striking black sanitation workers. He was slain on
April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum.
Given the evidence that assassin James Earl Ray was stalking King at the time, “he could have just as easily killed him here,” said state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, chair of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission.
Or, who knows?
In any event, King was no stranger to Virginia, having visited the commonwealth on more than two dozen occasions — from his first visit at Virginia Union University in the summer of 1953 to his final appearance at Virginia State University in June 1967.
“Very few people are aware of King’s connection to Virginia,” McClellan said.
The commission decided to research and document that history, an idea brought to them by the Rev. Tyler C. Millner, pastor of Morning Star Holy Church in Martinsville.
Where King’s footprint was concerned, “I saw very little reporting and narrative on Virginia except for Danville and Richmond,” Millner said Monday.
He submitted a proposal to the commission, which embraced the idea, “and the plan is to go to every community he visited over a one-year period,” Millner said. Last month, the commission launched the first of these “Beloved Community Conversations” at Virginia Union University in Richmond and at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
But this is not a mere commemorative.
Millner and commission members view the conversations as a chance to advance King’s vision of The Beloved Community, described by The King Center as a place in which “poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated. ... Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. ... Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”
Suffice it to say, we are not there yet.
We won’t get there until we stop focusing on one stirring passage from a one-dimensional King.
King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington “is compatible with the myth of America,” Millner said. But in the last three years of his life, after securing passage of the Voting Rights Act, King was focused on fighting poverty and economic inequality and opposing the war in Vietnam.
“They ignore everything that happened after 1965,” McClellan said of the mainstream media.
U.Va. alumnus Wesley Harris reinforced that point during the Charlottesville conversation on March 13.
“It was not always about civil rights,” he said. “But he was truly a champion for social justice. He articulated very clearly the instability coming out of the abyss between the haves and the have-nots that persists to this very day.”
Harris, now a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shared his reflections on King’s two-day visit.
On March 25, 1963, King spoke before about 900 people at U.Va.’s Old Cabell Hall, at the behest of the school’s seven black students, including Harris, then chairman of the local chapter of the Virginia Council on Human Relations. U.Va.’s president and other school leaders refused to acknowledge King’s presence, Harris recalled.
Last month’s Charlottesville event was particularly poignant, occurring seven months after the violent “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally there in August to oppose the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park.
Also on the panel was Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker, a grass-roots organizer and the city’s first black female mayor. She read quotes from King’s 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”
In the book, King observes that “the great majority of Americans ... are uneasy with injustice but unwilling to pay a significant price to eradicate it.”
He contends that “white America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap — essentially it seeks only to make it less painful and less obvious but in most respects to retain it.” And he notes, “The poor can stop being poor if the rich are willing to become even richer at a slower rate.”
“If we really dig deep and study, we would understand that the path was laid out, the truths have been there. ... The reality is we have so much work to do,” Walker said.
Millner said Monday that King would insist today that we deal with economic and racial injustice and hold the system accountable.
“America is based on a great idea,” Millner said. “Those ideas must inform what we do and they must be the judge of what we do. And I think King would insist on that, even though the political wind of the country is not interested in that.”
McClellan says she remains optimistic, for the most part.
“I recognize that my life in 2018 is much different than my mother when she was my age, my grandparents,” she said. “I have seen my own family’s incremental progress.”
But she describes the period from the 2012 slaying of Florida teen Trayvon Martin through the Charlottesville march as “sort of the drip, drip, drip that beats you down.” She can’t forget the murder of nine black churchgoers by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C., “because it was one more in a series of events that made you wonder, is it ever going to stop?”
“We have a very long way to go to achieve The Beloved Community, and we can’t stop,” she said.
We won’t get there until we stop doing a disservice to the past and the present by clinging to King as a one-dimensional dreamer. Or as King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
It’s imperative that we explore the breadth of what King stood for and move beyond platitudes toward action.
His prescriptions are needed now more than ever.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived for one of his four visits to Danville in 1963. King visited Virginia on more than two dozen occasions from 1953 to 1967.
ABOVE: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Virginia State University in 1962. With him were fellow civil rights leaders Milton Reid (left) and Ralph Abernathy (right).