The civil rights veteran, one of only two surviving witnesses to King’s murder 50 years ago, says his mentor’s response to Trump would have been: ‘We must not surrender our spirits’
Jesse Jackson still remembers the sound of the gunshot and the sight of blood. They have been with him for half a century. “Every time I think about it, it’s like pulling a scab off a sore,” he says. “It’s a hurtful, painful thought: that a man of love is killed by hate; that a man of peace should be killed by violence; a man who cared is killed by the careless.”
Jackson and fellow civil rights veteran Andrew Young are the last surviving disciples of Martin Luther King who witnessed his assassination on 4 April 1968. Others who were at the Lorraine motel in Memphis, Tennessee, that day have been claimed by the passing decades. And each milestone anniversary has offered a snapshot of Jackson’s, and the nation’s, jagged and jarringly uneven narratives.
Twenty years after the deadly shooting, in 1988, Baptist preacher Jackson was mounting his second bid to become America’s first black president. He invoked King and his death repeatedly as he took on Michael Dukakis in the Democratic primaries and caucuses. He won 11 contests but failed to gain the nomination.
At the 40-year mark after King’s death, the torch had been passed to Barack Obama, locked in a Democratic primary of his own against Hillary Clinton and under pressure over his relationship with the outspoken pastor Jeremiah Wright. The senator praised Jackson, a fellow Chicagoan, for making his run possible. On the night Obama won the presidency, Jackson wept.
Now it is 50 years and the wheel has turned again. Jackson announced last November that he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Donald Trump, endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, is in the White House. Just as many saw King’s assassination by the escaped convict James Earl Ray – a white man partly inspired by the segregationist governor George Wallace – as a reactionary strike against revolution, so Trump’s election has been interpreted as (in King’s phrase) a “white backlash” against Obama.
Amid the tumult of the 1960s, King, outspoken against the Vietnam war, was one of the most hated men in America and his life was in constant danger. His house was bombed, his followers were killed, his name was trashed by newspaper editorials and his phones were tapped by J Edgar Hoover’s FBI. His two-thirds disapproval rating in a 1966 Gallup poll sits at odds with today’s “I have a dream” sanctification.
“They loved him as a martyr after he was killed but rejected him as a marcher when he was alive,” recalls Jackson, 76, still a dedicated activist, speaking by phone from an African development conference in Morocco. “We tend to embrace martyrs. In many ways he has a moral authority now you wouldn’t see if he was still alive. He is a universal frame of reference for moral authority, the global frame of reference for nonviolent justice and social change. If he had not died, that probably would not be the case.”
King and a group of close aides, including Jackson, headed to Memphis to support predominantly African American garbage workers who had gone on strike for better safety conditions and pay after two colleagues were crushed to death in the back of a truck. On the night of 3 April, members of the civil rights leader’s inner circle went to a public gathering at the Mason Temple. “He was reluctant to come to the meeting that night,” Jackson says. “He had a migraine headache, he didn’t feel like talking. Ralph Abernathy [a close friend of King] and I went to the church. The people saw us coming in: they were cheering.
“Then Ralph Abernathy said to me, ‘Jesse, they’re not cheering for us. They think Martin’s behind us.’ He laughed. He went to the back of the church and called Dr King on the phone. He said, ‘Martin, come to the church and let them see you.’ Dr King said, ‘I’ll be there in a few minutes,’ and he came. Then Ralph Abernathy gave him a rather long introduction to give him time to think.”
King went on to deliver a speech unbearable in its prescience. He described the “threats out there” and what fate might befall him at the hands of “some of our sick white brothers”. He said: “But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now … I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land.”
Jackson says: “There are those who think he was anticipating the next day. He had just come from a plane which had been emptied because of the threat of the plane being hit by a terrorist attack. He was aware but he felt that ‘a coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once’. He refused to be afraid because of the risk of ambush and sabotage; he refused to stop what he was doing out of fear because he did it out of courage.”
The next day, King was staying at his regular Memphis haunt, the Lorraine motel. It was 6pm and the group were preparing to head out for dinner. King was standing on the balcony outside room 306. As Jackson, who was in the car park eight feet below, tells it: “He said, ‘You’re late for dinner … You don’t even have on a shirt and tie.’ I said, ‘Doc, the prerequisite for eating is appetite, not a tie.’ He laughed and said, ‘You’re crazy.’ We joked around that way.”
King turned to Ben Branch, a saxophonist standing next to Jackson, and asked him to perform his favourite song, Take My Hand, Precious Lord, at a rally later that night: “Play it real pretty.” Then came the shot. King was hurled back violently, blood gushed from his jaw and neck as his spinal cord was severed. His tie was ripped off by the force of the bullet.
Jackson heard police shout, “Get low! Get low!”, and pour into the scene with guns drawn. He adds: “We were traumatised to see him lying there soaked in blood, 39 years old. He’d done so much to make America better, built bridges, sacrificed his livelihood, sacrificed his life. I remember Ralph Abernathy coming out and saying, ‘Get back my friend, my friend, don’t leave us now,’ but Dr King was dead on impact.”
Jackson walked to his room and called King’s wife, Coretta. “I said to her I think he’s been shot in the shoulder. I couldn’t say what I saw. She had a certain resolve, a certain understanding of the danger of the mission. She’d seen him stabbed, she’d heard the threats. She knew the price you paid for trying to make America better. She had made peace with the fact he could be killed, they both of them could be killed, the house could be bombed. She’d made peace with it over a 13-year period.”
King was taken to hospital but never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead about an hour after being shot. It was a seismic shock. “In many ways it redefined America: before and after Martin Luther King,” Jackson says, claiming: “When he was killed, the FBI in Atlanta jumped on the tables in jubilation.” But the news also unleashed fury across the country. Riots broke out in more than a hundred cities, leaving 39 people dead, more than 2,600 injured and 21,000 arrested, with damage estimated at $65m.
The civil rights movement was at a crossroads. Some African American leaders called for greater militancy; others vowed to adhere to King’s nonviolent confrontation and disruptive resistance. Jackson reflects: “We had to make a big decision: allow one bullet to kill a whole movement for which we worked and forfeit the game, or fight even harder, and we did that. In his name we kept fighting. We’ve never stopped, as a matter of fact. He laid the groundwork. The coalition started rebuilding on the ground laid by his philosophy.”
There were many strides forward – school integration, affirmative action – and bitter reversals – school resegregation, voter suppression, a shift from spending on poverty to mass incarceration – along the way. He draws a biblical comparison: “Barack won the election in 2008. That’s 40 years after ’68, which means that it was 40 years in the wilderness. We never stopped working, never stopped raising issues, never stopped fighting poverty, never stopped fighting the war. And then, with the momentum of 40 years, we take the White House, win it twice in a row. That an African American man can win in this hostile nation toward black aspiration is significant all by itself, it seems to me.”
And yet then, as if in malign mockery of King’s now overly quoted phrase, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, came Trump, who rose to political prominence by questioning whether Obama was born in America and has used the presidency to stoke racial divisions. The author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates has called the 45th president a white supremacist.
Would Jackson use the same description? “Self-declared. It’s not exactly a secret. Trump’s cabinet makeup, the decision makers: there is white male supremacy ideology. The dangerous part of the white supremacy is in a global world we need the desire and the vision to compete and communicate with the world. We’re surrendering world leadership. There’s no leadership on climate change, on African development. We share 2,000 miles of border with Mexico and they’re a trading partner; to offend Mexico is irrational; to offend Canada likewise.
“Dr King believed in multiracial, multicultural coalitions of conscience, not ethnic nationalism. He felt nationalism – whether black, white or brown – was narrowly conceived, given our global challenges. So having a multiracial setting said much about his vision of America and the world, what America should stand for as well as the world.”
It is this internationalist, outward-looking perspective that nourishes Jackson as he looks back on achievements of the past half-century that his mentor would surely have applauded. He points to the restoration of Haiti’s exiled president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the release of Nelson Mandela and end of apartheid in South Africa, the liberation of Africa from colonialism and occupation and, back home, the rising number of African Americans in Congress and other political offices.
“The moral arc of the universe is long and it bends towards justice but you have to pull it to bend; it doesn’t bend automatically,” Jackson muses. “Dr King used to remind us that every time the movement has a tailwind and goes forward, there are headwinds. Those who oppose change in some sense were re-energised by the Trump demagoguery. Dr King would have been disappointed by his victory but he would have been prepared for it psychologically. He would have said, ‘We must not surrender our spirits. We must use this not to surrender but fortify our faith and fight back.’”
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