Reflecting on MLK

The hosts recall their memories of the death of Martin Luther King.

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BRIAN: Well, I think it’s worth starting by recalling some of our own memories of Martin Luther King’s assassination. I’m embarrassed to say that I have no specific memory of that day. And what makes it more embarrassing is that I remember distinctly when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. I remember distinctly when John F. Kennedy was assassinated back in 1963. I have no specific memories. Ed, do you have something authentic from the moment?

ED: Well, to the extent that anything that we see through television is authentic, right? Because the memory that I have before is, frankly, my dad railing at the TV whenever Martin Luther King would come on, and about just what a misguided, self-indulgent figure that he was, and that nothing good is going to come from all this.

And then frankly, the shame of the assassination when we realized it was in Tennessee. You know, that it was our own state who had killed this– and then suddenly a little bit of shame, the things that had been said around the television set, you know?

There was a clear sense after this. You could feel the ground shift of, like, oh, kind of a microcosm of what the country went through a little bit later. But you know– and I think a certain sense too that, wow. After King is gone and there’s still all the anger but there’s not this one person that we can talk about and focus on, it just– it suddenly felt like things were sort of chaotic.

BRIAN: Confusing.

ED: Yeah. And then when Robert Kennedy was assassinated a few months later, it just felt like the whole country is falling apart, is the feeling I had as a 15-year-old.

BRIAN: Joanne.

JOANNE: I have a memory of the year after the assassination, being in school and singing songs about Martin Luther King, and not really knowing who he was, but knowing he was a hero who somehow or other died to make things better.

ED: What grade were you in, Joanne?

JOANNE: Second grade.


JOANNE: So that is my vague memory that somehow or other– because the songs were like, you know, sort of solemn but that he was a great hero, and somehow or other that he had died to make things better.

Now I have stronger memories about Robert Kennedy’s assassination, because what I remember in that case was my mother crying. And that’s all I remember. But I remember that because that was not something I think I’d ever seen before. And it’s interesting. Those are such different memories. I have a memory of crying associated with Robert Kennedy and a memory of singing associated with the death of Martin Luther King.

BRIAN: Well, Nathan, were you even born in 1968?

NATHAN: No, no. But I actually find it really striking that there’s a way in which as just a young person, King has kind of left his mark on all of us. I mean– or the absence of that mark causes us to feel a particular way. I mean, that to me, I think, really deserves some attention.

Because as a young person, you know, I really did enter kind of late middle school, high school, you know, in the 1990s. By that point, the Martin Luther King Day celebration had been almost– probably a decade in the making.

And it was one of those things that felt very easy as a young person, especially a young black person, to just kind of accept King as a hero. I mean, he was served up to us on a silver platter every January for King Day, every February for Black History Month. You know. And any time you saw documentaries about eyes on the prize, you know, that came during the summer [INAUDIBLE], that too was another way of really making him iconic.

But I also remember really stepping back from associating with King, because it felt as if he was just a two-dimensional figure that kind of loved everybody and didn’t really have a complicated ideology. That’s how he was presented to us as young people, you know? And so it was only when I read more, in fact, that I began to really appreciate him and the depth of his thinking, and really the sophisticated nature that he tried to think through some of the complicated questions about segregation, about the military, about poverty.

And you know, it’s, I think, really important that we remember just how much our current young folks are adopting a vision of King or a version of King that can be sometimes really flat. And I think it’s really incumbent on us to try as best we can to, you know, obviously complicate that, but then also to maybe widen the way that we think about King in history, to think about all the people who were supporting him and all the broader cast of characters that came out of that period.

I mean, there’s always a danger of associating just one movement with one person. He’s the only American that has his own holiday. We have a Columbus Day, we have a Martin Luther King Day, and then that’s pretty much it. We bundle together President’s Day for a couple people. And so I think there’s always a question about, how much do we put on this one person to do emotional work for us, you know?

ED: Well, I think there are other elements on this that are, as they say, counterintuitive. I want to try out an idea on you folks and see what you think. I believe that Martin Luther King may have done more for the economic growth of the American South of black and white, which as we now know has, for the first time in American history, black people moving to the South for the first time.

I think King throwing off the burden of segregation freed the South to become an international player economically with all the car companies that are building factories there now and all the corporate headquarters, and the way the South is booming. I think as long as the South labored under segregation, it was never going to do that.

So what would you say to that? That was the– it freed an entire region of the nation to participate in the global economy in ways that it had never been able to do before?

NATHAN: That’s a heavy point. So I think a couple of things. The first is that the South, you know, especially in urban areas like Atlanta, like New Orleans, like Miami, there was an earlier effort to try to remove the stain of segregation. People were trying to keep the Klan from being able to burn crosses in public or outlawing hoods, like, through the 1940s and ’50s.

But you’re absolutely right that there was a way in which King brought some attention that forced politicians at the state level who oftentimes were opposed to these more urban growth initiatives to really step in line and think about the economic future of the South. I mean, it’s hard to make a moral argument that segregation is justified in light of the very dramatic stands that he and many others took in front of cameras, in front of police through the 1960s. So that’s a critical piece of it.

But there again, it’s funny because I think King was still widely unpopular even in the South, right? There were conservative business elements, you know, among African Americans, among whites who just didn’t like the direct action moment.

And so it’s funny, because boycotts don’t grow the economy, you know? Bad press don’t grow the economy. And so there was a weird kind of a symbiont, I guess, relationship between the protests that helped to force people to reform, but then also the fact that you had to deal with a temporary lag in one’s reputation or in one’s, you know, appeal to northern money in light of the fact that these challenges were being made so publicly.

ED: Yeah. And I think that’s right. And you think about Atlanta being the primary beneficiary of this, being most closely associated with King. And you know, the city too busy to hate, and so forth. I remember going to the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and seeing elaborate displays about Martin Luther King at– I think a picture of this at the stadium during, you know, the celebrations at the outset.

And it was like, but why are you celebrating him? What did he actually do? Well, you can’t say because you would have to admit that this place where we’re sitting had been based on segregation for a century before that, on slavery before that.

So he was so taken out of context, it’s kind of like, you know, Joanne’s experience as a second grader that we can celebrate him without actually talking about the evil that he overcame. And I just remember feeling like a very grumpy historian while other people are, you know, sort of misty-eyed about this and kind of going, yeah, but nobody around the world would have any idea of what he actually did, because we can’t name the evil.


JOANNE: Michael Honey is the author of To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice. Jason Sokol is the author of The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Clayborne Carson is the author of Martin’s Dream: My Journey and the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Jeanne Theoharis is the author of A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History. Thomas Jackson is the author of From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice.

BRIAN: The audio of Martin Luther King comes from the Studs Terkel Radio Archive.

NATHAN: That’s going to do it for us today, but you can keep this conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode or ask us your questions about history. You’ll find us at Or send an email to We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter @BackStoryRadio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

JOANNE: This episode of BackStory was produced by David Stenhouse, Nina Earnest, Emily Gadek, and Ramona Martinez. Jamal Millner is our Technical Director, Diana Williams is our Digital Editor, and Joey Thompson is our Researcher.

Additional help came from Angeli Bishosh, Sequoia Carrillo, Corean Thomas, Courtney Spania, and Aaron Teiling. Our theme song was written by Nick Thorburn. Other music in this episode came from Ketsa, Podington Bear, and Jahzzar. Thanks to the Johns Hopkins studios in Baltimore.

NATHAN: BackStory is produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Provost Office at the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

ED: Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment.

MALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus of the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University. BackStory was created by Andrew Windham for Virginia Humanities.