The civil unrest in our nation's streets has led many to compare what’s happening today with the rioting in 1968 that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But if we focus only on the images of burning buildings, shattered storefronts, standoffs with police and angry expressions of discontent, we miss the larger context that makes this comparison so compelling. It’s not the unrest that matters, but the causes and factors that led to it.
Five weeks before King died on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders — known as the Kerner Commission — issued its searing report that condemned the racial injustice woven into every American institution and concluded that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
Established by President Johnson to investigate the causes of the urban riots in Detroit and Newark the summer before, the report painted a stark portrait of white complicity and responsibility: “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
Such conclusions were not new to King, and the report confirmed what he had been seeing and hearing in his civil rights work around the country. It detailed in depth the economic injustices, the institutional discrimination, the overpowering prejudice and the police practices that sparked civil unrest and led many African Americans to view the police as a symbol of “white power, white racism and white repression.” King called the report “a physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”
What King understood, and what the Kerner Commission report described, was that the African American community was a tinder box of frustration and exasperation that any type of match could light on fire. King would relate a conversation in the aftermath of the Watts riots in 1965 — ignited by a conflict with police — when a teen came up to him and declared, “We won!” To which a shocked King replied, “What do you mean, ‘We won’? Thirty-some people dead, all but two are Negroes. You’ve destroyed your own. What do you mean, ‘We won’?” And the young man said, “We made them pay attention to us.” To King, “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
But it wasn’t just the potential for rioting that King noticed. He understood that the great legislative achievements of civil rights — the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed employment discrimination and segregation in public places — were necessary for rectifying past and present injustices, but far from sufficient to address the aching need for human dignity that white society denied African Americans. Filling the vacuum at the time was the black power movement, which said that equals don’t ask for their birthrights and argued that the only way to equalize white power in society was to assert black power — and to develop pride from that power, which would translate to an insistence on respect as equals.
Said King: “I contend that the cry of black power is at bottom a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro.”
So when King traveled to Memphis in March and April of 1968, his immediate goal was to support a strike by the city’s sanitation workers who faced such brutal and dehumanizing conditions that two men were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck — a result of city rules designed to keep the mostly black sanitation workers from sheltering in largely white residential neighborhoods during bad weather, so workers who typically used riding steps on the sides of trucks were forced to seek cover from the rain in the barrel of the trucks. Adding insult, the city government claimed that the employees were not covered by Tennessee’s workers’ compensation law and offered their families only token payments for their loss.
But to King, something larger was at stake than supporting the striking workers. Seeing the rising anger and insistence in the black community — and grasping the growing appeal of black power — he saw the strike as part of a new civil rights front to address poverty and economic justice in America. He sought to turbo-charge the movement and make it an expression of black empowerment built on a demand for human dignity and for full economic and social equality. Without raised hopes, he feared, the cities would descend into further chaos and violence in the summer of 1968.
History, as we know, took a different path and the bullet that felled King on April 4 led to the worst civil unrest in our nation’s history. Everything King hoped to forestall that summer ignited in the aftermath of his death. More than 100 cities broke out in fiery riots and 46 people died. With smoke rising above the Capitol and Washington under military occupation, those who had dreamed of King’s “Promised Land” saw what may have been the darkest moments of that turbulent decade.
The lesson from 1968 has little to do with the actual fact of civil unrest taking place that year. It has everything to do with a nation that has yet to reckon with its racial history. The Kerner Commission warned us, as did King. But as King knew, inaction at the most fundamental level — ending the social, economic, psychological, legal and institutional dehumanization of a people — was the real flammable material ready to ignite. It happened in 1968 with the assassination of King, and it happened in 2020 with a police officer crushing the life out of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But the match is less important than the conditions that would allow it to light a fire.
Leonard Steinhorn is a professor of communication and an affiliate professor of history at American University. He also serves as a political analyst for CBS News Radio.