Remembering MLK: A 10th Grader on April 5, 1968

Christopher Edley, Jr. | President and Co-founder, the Opportunity Institute

Every year, still, I feel an achy hollowness in my chest. Sometimes there’s also a tightness and throbbing—like now, as I write this. 

The first time, my ache was accompanied by a deep, grumbling fear. I was in 10th grade, vice president of the student body, sitting in the gym bleachers, about to share my thoughts with about 1,500 students, the morning of April 5, 1968. And I feared for the future of racial justice.

Dr. King’s murder was such a blow. The movement was part of my household conversation, not only for the ordinary reasons but also because five years earlier, my father became the Ford Foundation’s first black grant officer. His several responsibilities included defining and implementing the foundation’s civil rights work.  

Dad knew most of the key players, and pushed through grants to them, and talked about them at dinner. I felt a personal connection and a political appreciation. 

The violence visited upon a peaceful Nobelist was, to me, a shocking insistence that the movement’s bloodiness would continue. Moreover, keeping safe our moral compass, quelling the movement’s fractiousness, singing on behalf of those better angels—no person could replace him. 

So, I feared the movement would drift. Or worse.

One of the most important consequences, however, was not on my mind and may not have been predicted by anyone. Fifteen years later, after an elite education and a stint doing anti-poverty policy in the Carter White House, I was an assistant professor at Harvard Law School. As I tried to decide how I should contribute to the movement from my privileged perch, I pondered the loss of momentum. My hypothesis was, and remains, as follows:

Above all else, America’s political and cultural struggles over race and poverty are about values. For most Americans, values discourse is informed by or even located within their spirituality. Dr. King understood that, and his personal elements of godliness were his inexhaustible energy source, lifting us all. 

After he was murdered, however, the course of the movement was increasingly charted by lawyers and policy wonks. (I myself am both.) Moral authority was replaced by the footnotes of lawyers and the instrumentalism of policy engineers. The movement had its own energy crisis before OPEC led President Carter to ask that we turn down the heat and wear cardigans. 

By the early '90s, it seemed to me that while churches remained key and religious leaders remained prominent, their contributions were far less in the persuasiveness of theology or spiritualism or even values. Instead, churches offered basement meeting halls and mailing lists. Faith leaders felt social justice as a calling, but rarely made explicit use of faith in order to persuade. Their civic engagement was more like a politician’s than a theologian’s. Dr. King was both.