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After King


THE flood of official rhetoric in the last four days invoking Martin Luther King's non-violence to choke potential riots has obscured the edge of the man's philosophy and the distinctiveness of his achievement. King was always a militant--his intent was to expose the white viciousness with which his non-violence was met. And so his assassination was not truly a shock; nor should the country sanctimoniously pretend not to understand why this man's death has provoked new bursts of despair and anger from the ghetto.

King's uniqueness lay not in the philosophy of non-violence he pieced together from Gandhi, Thoreau and others, but in the wholehearted Americanism with which he fought his battles. When an injunction was issued to halt the Memphis sanitation workers' demonstration he planned to lead, King called it a totalitarian measure--the kind one would expect of the Russians or Chinese. "Somewhere I have read," King said, "somewhere I have read of the freedom of assembly."

The man was an American kind of hero--a pioneer. His Montgomery bus boycott gave birth to black Civil Rights activism. And his quintessential moment was a 1963 speech about a dream.

During the last four years King's tactics wore less well than his moral vision. The movement outgrew the original focus of his energy on the South. King's year of urban organizing in Chicago was a chronicle of unproductive frustrations. The poor peoples' march on Washington he was planning for this Spring was tactically a last stand--a test of whether he had become an anachronism as a Black leader.

And so the eulogies to King and his non-violence are more distressing than soothing, for they reveal whites embracing the style, simplicity, and emotional sincerity of King's crusades, not their content. The abrupt white rediscovery of reverence for King is corrupted by a Machiavellian awareness of its repressive uses.

The words the President and Congress have been saying are an empty response to the racial crisis, inadequate even to their narrow aim of stopping a summer of civil war. Legislation--quick and substantial as the Riot Commission report directed--is the only functional memorial to King political leaders can leave.

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