This piece first appeared in the April 19, 1968 issue of Commonweal
The hot summer of 1968 arrived on the eighth day of spring, and in manner to make a prophet out of that unlikely sage, Adam Clayton Powell.
“The day of Martin Luther King has come to an end,” Mr. Powell exclaimed during his triumphal return to Harlem. And a few days later, March 28, Memphis exploded, as Dr. King led the protest march which sought to shake from unreconstructed city fathers recognition of a union and a paltry 7₵ more per hour to settle Memphis’ sanitation workers’ strike.
“The era of reasonable, meaningful non-violence is not over,” Dr. King had asserted a few days earlier, partially to put to rest uneasiness that surrounded the Poor People’s Campaign he was to take to Washington on April 22. But the March 28 violence in Memphis provided the first clue: non-violence has lost much of its grip on the black civil rights movement. And with the murder of Dr. King, there is screaming evidence that black non-violence is about as dead as Powell implied. No need to reason why.
If non-violence disappears entirely among blacks, it will be because white intransigence has once again left them without alternatives in the rights struggle. Take Memphis. The issues were minor ones, but the inflexibility of white city officials twisted the tensions in racial directions. A week before the March 28 violence, the Southern Regional Council warned that the handling of the sanitation strike was triggering the release of built-up resentment in the Negro community. City fathers remained unheeding and the March 28 violence became something of an inevitability.
Then followed the white violence that was the murder of Martin Luther King.
It is possible that that violence, like the March 28 violence, has complex roots in causes beyond immediate issues. The difference is that the roots of white racial resentment are in the negativisms of the American system and possess none— none—of the qualities that redeem and justify black resentment.
And what a memorable year this has been for the hypocrisy on which to fester the racial resentment of the crackpot white.