From the archives: A tragedy in Memphis


The following editorial was published in the April 12, 1968 issue of The Suffolk Times, one week after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., 50 years ago. It was taken from The Christian Science Monitor.

For many months the United States has wrestled with two awesome problems. The one within, the other without. Few could have foreseen that the week now ending would have brought such epochal developments in both. What happened on Sunday [rioting], it might be argued, was necessary. What happened on Thursday [the assassination] was not. It was an act of savage and brutal folly.

Americans of good will — and they are in vast majority — must share Vice President Humphrey’s verdict that the assassination of Martin Luther King was a deed for which all must feel shame. And all will join President Johnson in seeking to bring sympathy and comfort to the bereaved family. We extend them our loving sympathy. But the import of this murder goes far beyond human loss. It heightens as few other single blows could the racial crisis across the nation.

Yet every crisis begins with it opportunity as well as danger. If the opportunity at this moment of grief is not seized, the danger which lies beyond it could all too easily become catastrophe. The opportunity this tragedy offers is one of self-examination — above all on the part of white Americans. The temptation will be great for many black Americans to see in Dr. King’s murder proof of the long-repeated arguments of his most militant black critics; that nonviolence does not pay, that white Americans are capable of snuffing out those blacks who get in their way. Some blacks may give way to frenzy now. But this will not lift from whites the onus of proving that professions of the principles upon which the Republic was founded are not a sham.

Dr. King believed in those principles. And so long as he was not silenced, he was part line of communication between blacks and whites, part buffer that helped ward off destructive collision between them. Every effort must now be bent to prevent just such a collision.

Perhaps America as a whole should have paid greater heed to what has been going on in Memphis since February. Perhaps the officials of Memphis were over-obtuse to over-obdurate from the start. But too much time and energy should not be given to finding scapegoats for the rest of us. What we need urgently to do is to examine our consciences and to attack within them whatever residual prejudices of humanity we find lurking there. Not just Memphis is on trial — but America itself.

Civilized authority cannot allow a breakdown of law and order. But the maintenance of law and order is not the same thing as repression. Law and order cannot be effectively maintained unless they are firmly based on justice. This is a time, too, when there is special need for compassion. No single act is likely to heal all wounds. The process will take time, when there is all too little time left. But the Congress could point the way now by promptly passing into law the civil rights measure over which it has already dithered far too long this session.

The alarm sounded by the Kerner commission was not a false one. The nation must not shy away from this warning, but face it squarely — and carry the elements of compassion, healing and justice into practical action.