12 April 1968: “The country has lost not just Dr King but the King”

Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated forty-five years ago today. Here, Alan Brien reports from a grief-stricken New York.

The only cheerful faces I have seen here since the assassination of Martin Luther King last Thursday have been those of the Negro looters on television. Colour is a great romanticiser of electronic images, painting tragedy as melodrama, tinting actuality with the pastel shades of Hollywood farce. Vietnam has almost vanished from the screens these last few days with its ketchup blood and dry-ice smoke, recalling inappropriate images of John Wayne wading novocaine-faced through the swamps of Iwo Jima. Now the long-distance camera eyes sprout on stalks in the riot areas of America's own cities, and many sequences we watch might almost be from some innocent, whimsical, indulgent, black-face musical of the Forties like Cabin in the Sky. The impulse-shoppers of the slums, celebrating an impromptu, out-of-season Christmas, could be observed queueing in an orderly fashion, like wartime civilians in Britain, outside broken-open shops. The fantasies of the commercials, where goodies rain down from Heaven and gadgets magically furnish empty rooms, were being acted out for real. The kind of easily portable wealth that professional criminals would search out - cash, jewellery, watches, etc - seemed often ignored. One woman staggered under the weight of a monster carton of Kleenex. A man almost danced down the street pushing a cumbrous dressing table with a huge mirror - and waved to the watching millions at home as he went. Another sat among the splintered glass, sparkling like tinsel in the TV spotlights, sensibly trying on a liberated pair of banana-yellow boots for comfort and style.

At first, the police stood by in most places, simply directing the traffic in flood-lit robbery as the exploited expropriated a little of the surplus profit of the exploiters - only to be gently rebuked by the New York Times next day for such un-American priority for people over things. Later, sniping and fire-bombing broke out and the law reasserted its traditional role. In Manhattan, rumour was full of tongues, pandering to that guilty thrill in anticipating the apocalypse which is one of the deep excitements of modern metropolitans. Reports of besieged suburbs, hijacked buses, mutinying schools and marching mobs leapt from lip to lip. The true facts, available instantly on such radio stations as WINS, which broadcast an uninterrupted flow of news around the clock, were barely more credible as the astonishing weekend began.

The curfew in the nation's capital retreated to 4pm on Saturday - earlier than that in Saigon. More regular troops were deployed to protect Washington than Khe Sanh. New York is the only American city I know at all well. I have spent an annual working holiday here every year since 1961. Each time I arrive I feel an intensifying weight of violence in the air which presses down on the visitor like the atmosphere of Venus on an exploring astronaut. The electric crackle of static which arcs from the hand to the doorknob or the lift buzzer - and makes many an unwary tourist imagine his coronary has caught up with him at last - seems to symbolise the bottled aggression stored in these human batteries. In the past, my friends here have vied with each other, whether expatriates or natives, in telling tales of life in the asphalt jungle - mad taxi-drivers who kidnapped passengers to tell them the story of their lives, sadistic vandals terrorising an entire subway carriage for an hour's journey, six-year-old children threatened by knife-carrying nine-year-olds on the fringes of the Park, lessons invaded by drug-addicts, alcoholics and sex perverts. My reaction has been shock and fear and a desire not to believe. Their's has been a rather callous bravado - like sixth-formers putting the wind up a cissy new boy.

Now, this week, I am the one who has always expected this hell to break loose. Looking from the outside across the Atlantic, like many Britons, I have seen the storm cones hoisted for a hurricane. Since the killing of President Kennedy and Malcolm X, it seemed inevitable that more sacrificial victims would follow in time. It is the residents who cannot believe their eyes and ears and implore you to tell them that what is happening is impossible. For once, the old liberal cliché about everybody being guilty for the crime of one psychopath seems, if not true, at least universally believed to be true. There is a widespread desire to canonise Martin Luther King, a great and good man fit to stand alongside Gandhi or Danilo Dolci, into a saint and martyr unrivalled in history. Each man loves the thing he kills and the civil rights leader is rapidly becoming an immortal. His reputation escalates from hour to hour. A Negro leader described him as the noblest human of our century. A rabbi called him the Black Moses. The Pope's comparison of him to Christ crucified seems to almost nobody even a trifle hyperbolic.

It is an awe-inspiring and rather unnerving sight to see the mass media of American opinion-making (what one British journalist unkindly calls “The Bullshit Machine”) firing on all cylinders to a single theme. Dr King's picture is in every shop window, in every paper and magazine, punctuating almost every programme on TV. The US flag, and this is a nation of flag-fliers, is everywhere at half-mast, sometimes upside down (the sign of a nation in distress). Public events which might seem tactlessly light-hearted, such as the Oscar awards, are postponed or cancelled. Radio announcers assure you that you will hear nothing frivolous all day on their channel. The country has lost not just Dr King but the King. These words and images have done more to damp down riot than all the police and troops. Any Negro anywhere is treated by whites as if he were personally a close relative of the murdered man. How long this spontaneous unity in mourning will last, no can tell. But it is an America I have never seen before.

Martin Luther King Jr calls after encountering a white mob in Alabama. Photo: Getty.

Alan Brien (1925 – 2008) was a critic, foreign correspondent and author of “Lenin: a novel”.

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred