Fifty years ago today Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
His empowering charisma and his exclusively peaceful campaign for justice that unified African-Americans in an unprecedented way made him a potent threat to the age-old racism still afflicting America. King knew by being a threat to the had made himself a target, a reality he acknowledged in his last speech: “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.”
Just over two weeks ago Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man was shot eight times, mostly in the back, by Sacramento police. Clark joined a long list of African-Americans killed in those circumstances since King was murdered. His Promised Land remains unrealised. That Sacramento county sheriff Scott Jones blamed “paid protesters” over a demonstration following the killing suggests that will be the case for the foreseeable future. President Trump’s defence of white supremacists after Charlottesville must encourage people like Jones making King’s objective even more remote — as do the economic and educational disadvantages still faced by many African-Americans. That the ESRI that found relatively high levels of discrimination towards immigrants here means any Irish criticism of these attitudes must be muted.
If today’s America has changed since 1968 so too has the world. There is simply no comparable leadership figure. There is no Gandhi, no Lech Walesa, no Václav Havel and, in an Irish context, no John Hume. There is no inspiring leader serving the highest ideals no matter what the cost — and there has not been since Nelson Mandela retired almost a decade ago. That Mandela’s successors had to force the end of the corrupt Jacob Zuma’s presidency is sadly representative.
When King was shot the soon-to-be-assassinated Robert Kennedy was on track to win the Democratic nomination to contest the American presidency. Two-and-a-half years before the next White House election, Kennedy’s party struggles to find a challenger to a Trump second term. The Soviet Union is no more but Russia represents a threat of a different kind. China’s Xi Jinping is leader in perpetuity. Later this week Hungary’s brutish prime minister Viktor Orbán will be re-elected despite accusations of racism, corruption and undermining democracy as he moves Hungary towards an “illiberal” state. Nobel peace laureate and Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi stands accused of complicity in genocide. Recep Erdogan and Benjamin Netanyahu are opposite sides of the same coin happy to play fast and loose with their citizens’ security. If that charge sheet is not enough to dishearten consider climate destruction, the immigration crisis, Brexit and a new threat of cyber wars.
In a world that all too often chooses positivity over reality that list may seem overwhelmingly dystopian but a quote from King may reassure: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Even if that wisdom seems a little touchy feely, a little too tree hugging in today’s polarising world its essential truth is undiminished and as seditious as ever.