I was surprised by his assassination. I didn’t see the Poor People’s Campaign as the threat to Washington and the Establishment that I now see it was. We feared for Dr. King’s life more in the early Sixties, through 1963, than we did by 1968. Up through 1965, there was a civil-rights-related death every couple of months, though most of them didn’t make headlines. By the end of ’65, there was a lull in the killings, and I thought perhaps we were finally beyond all that.
In his last year, we worried about Dr. King’s health. He was working eighteen to twenty hours a day. He would stay up all night reading, talking, clowning – whatever he felt like doing – and then wake up at five-thirty raring to go. His wife used to say that he had a war on sleep.
We would tell him that it looked like he was going to be around for a long time, and he couldn’t possibly keep this pace up, because he was close to forty. But if you said anything, he’d brush you off. I could never argue with him anyway. He was a preacher. And whenever we argued, he’d get to preaching. You never won an argument because he would take off on flights of oratory, and you’d forget your point trying to listen to him.
The year he died was the year he felt he had to establish the agenda for America’s future. For fifteen years he’d been struggling with the issues of racism, poverty and war. He refused to be just a civil rights leader. He was a sensitive lover of people who saw his primary responsibility in the black community. By 1968, though, it was clear to him that the black community could not concern itself with civil rights issues alone. The country was spending billions of dollars in Vietnam, and he saw racism and war becoming ever more tied up into one big problem for this country.
It was a time of increasing desperation for him. The SCLC had a fraction of the budget it should have had, about $700,000, and a small staff of fifty people, trying to take on the problems of the urban North, as well as the South, which still had large pockets of resistance. Not only weren’t we getting any aid from the federal government, but we had legions of FBI agents tracking us down, harassing us, trying to disrupt the work we were doing – work which I thought was the only thing that was giving America a fighting chance to survive.
The dangerous times when we were together were always the times he was most humorous. For years we couldn’t go anywhere without FBI men following us around. Dr. King was philosophical about it and very friendly toward them. Every now and then, we would leave a meeting through another entrance – not to escape the car that trailed us, but to sneak up on them. Dr. King would say hello, introduce us and (we always gave them the benefit of the doubt) thank them for the “protection” they were giving us.
I think he would have been quite content to be pastor of the Riverside Church, maybe teach at a university or a seminary. He wanted to teach the philosophy of religion, which was the subject of his Ph.D. He turned down a chance for the presidency of the NAACP when he first came to Montgomery in 1954, because he wasn’t sure he wanted to become that involved in the growing civil rights movement.
But when the bus boycott came in ’55, he was pressed into action. He had to respond. He was just twenty-six, and he never had the time to be the fun-loving man that he really was. He made the cover of Time magazine only a couple of years after he finished his degree, and then he was a celebrity.
From that time on he felt the burden of the country, his people and the world on his shoulders. He accepted it, but he always said he would have liked to do something else. He felt responsible for America’s future and its survival because he said that nobody understands nonviolence except black Americans, and if America was going to learn to live with the rest of the world, we’d have to help her find a nonmilitary course. In his Nobel Peace Prize speech, in fact, Dr. King said that the choice was nonviolence or nonexistence. I think back sometimes to what this country would have been like without Dr. King. The South was an armed camp in the Forties and Fifties. The GI bill and better job opportunities had created the beginnings of a black middle class, and they were not going to tolerate oppression any further. The white forces of reaction were trying to resist the advance of this new black middle class.
Every black family in the South had a gun. My father was probably the least violent man I know, and yet there were at least four guns in our household. Had there been no Martin Luther King Jr., the southern part of the United States would have looked like Northern Ireland or Lebanon.
And yet Martin saw that blacks and whites did not hate each other. They were being forced down through history on a collision course. Martin Luther King straightened out that course. He made it possible for blacks and whites to move in a parallel course of development and work together by using the tactic and methodology of nonviolence. He did not blame the white man for the problems that blacks were having. He saw blacks and whites caught up in a situation that they didn’t create, that they inherited. He saw nonviolence as a means for bringing people to realize that they could work their way together out of the situation.
Dr. King never understood why J. Edgar Hoover couldn’t comprehend what he was doing. If you read Hoover’s FBI reports on the March on Washington speech, you realize that he never saw Dr. King’s vision of a New America. He saw a powerful, radical political voice trying to destroy the nation.
I didn’t know then, but I now think that there lies the indirect responsibility for his assassination. I don’t know if it can ever be pinned down, but there are so many client groups that did dirty jobs around and for official people. I think now that Dr. King’s assassination was directly related to the fear that officialdom had of his bringing large numbers of poor people to the nation’s capital, setting up tents, demanding some response from them.
This story is from the December 1st, 1977 issue of Rolling Stone.