Martin Luther King's death is still a warning

Persistence of racism

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FORGIVE me if it seems ill-mannered to write about "the black thing" two Saturdays running, but there are reasons. First because today is the 30th anniversary of an event that made a deeper mark on my attitudes to public life than any other, before or since: the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King.

I was fortunate to be able to grow up with the example of a moral and personal giant before me. Because of his and my race, I felt a little closer to him than many, but I imagine that King was available to anyone as a role model whatever their race. Today we think of him as a star performer: a magnificent orator, a mesmeric preacher, a blaze of charisma.

He belongs to a generation of legends who we now see only through the distorting bubble of television archives. In spite of efforts to "reassess" all of them - King, Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, De Gaulle, even poor deposed Khruschev - the heroes of that period still carry a mythic weight and nobility not seen since. Can we imagine Bill Clinton making the words "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" carry the tingle that Kennedy's inauguration speech still provokes?

The nearest we come today is the saintly Nelson Mandela. He remains, in some senses, a figure of the 1960s anyway; his electrifying condemnation of apartheid in the Rivonia trial of 1963 still defines him, and archive film from the early Sixties, shown again and again, fixes him in our memory. In King's case, his speech at the Lincoln monument - "Let Freedom Ring" - remains his defining moment.

There is no reason to suppose that King was inherently more charismatic than Jesse Jackson, or Kennedy, less morally compromised than Bill Clinton. But we don't think of them in that way. All these heroes were made famous by the box, at a time when TV journalism was not yet inclined to peek under the skirts of saints. The fact that for the first time we could see these great leaders frequently, close-up, and in the midst of crisis, separated them from the previous generation of rather remote figures. Churchill, who might have had the same impact, was only available on wireless in his great moment. The heroes of the Sixties seemed vital, and their actions immediate. For about ten years, a window existed before TV journalists, shaken and disillusioned by Vietnam and Watergate routinely adopted the tones of cynicism and accusation so familiar today.

But for King, this was not a film role. It was grim reality, and most people still fail to grasp the depth of his courage. King probably never had any doubt that he would die a premature death; and at just thirty- five, he was racing against time to accomplish as much as he could before the end came. His murder, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, came less than five years after the shooting of John F Kennedy, and just two months before the assassination of Bobby Kennedy who, as Attorney General, had been vital in delivering King's civil rights legislation. That last killing was a watershed for black families all over the world.

Our parents said firmly to us: "You see? Any time that anybody does the slightest thing for black people, they'll kill him." Bobby Kennedy's assassination even inspired a lachrymose hit song called "Abraham (Lincoln), Martin and John", which people actually played at parties. The chorus went:

Has anybody here

Seen my old friend Martin?

Can you tell me where he's gone?

He freed a lot of people,

But it seems the good, they die young,

I just looked around and he was gone.

Today, it is hard for anyone not part of this generation to grasp just how real the risk seemed. Members of the Black Panthers were being shot right left and centre; even here, people you knew were quietly spirited away, or as in the case of the most prominent black radical of 1960s Britain, Michael X, discredited and destroyed. Their deaths may well have been in part due to their own shortcomings, but the result of any kind of successful political action by a black person has always seemed to be peculiarly predictable. So for my generation of black activists, merely going on a demonstration felt as though it carried the seeds of personal destruction.

In this context it is not difficult to understand the decision of General Colin Powell not to offer himself as a candidate for the Presidency of the United States. His family clearly believed that even if he had won at the polls he would never have reached the swearing-in ceremony. The King family, and King's principal political protegee, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young still suspect that there was a cover-up over his killing.

The certainty that politics is bad for black health persists. Even now, the decision of a young member of my own family to enter public life in the US requires careful consideration and lengthy transatlantic conferences about the chance of harm coming to him or her. It is perhaps a mark of the courage of the older generation of black people that they still encourage such activism in spite of their own belief that it will inevitable end up in catastrophe.

Of course none of the things that happened to King and the Kennedys could happen here, could they? Um, perhaps anybody who believes that should spend a few moments studying the reports of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. There are people in our society who treat a black life as casually as they would that of a passing insect.

My own crop of racist hate-mail this week was especially inspired. The Nazis are going communautaire. Part of one letter came in French, with a handwritten note in English telling me that "we" will never go away "now we are being funded by our successful French comrades". I won't recount the rest of it, as even The Independent can be read by children. However, if my beetle-brained correspondent can get someone to read this column to him or her, I would like him or her to borrow a brain cell and think about the following puzzle: why is an avowedly anti-European organisation using French money to promote its vile cause?

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