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The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by Jason Sokol, Basic Books, US $32.00, Pp 352, March 2018, ISBN 978-0465055913

On April 4, 1968, a fatal shot in Memphis killed one of the greatest civil rights leaders in modern history – without a doubt the greatest in American history – Martin Luther King Jr. If his murder moved many to tears, it also moved many others to celebrations. In the following days, riots erupted across the country and hope and optimism seemed to be dying. Outrage, anger, and apathy resurfaced as the dream of King of interracial fellowship itself appeared to be dying with his death. In The Heavens Might Crack, Jason Sokol revisits King’s death and shines a new light on his legacy.

In August 1963, King delivered his “I have a dream” speech before the Lincoln Memorial. He told the audience about his dream of a colorblind America, but also addressed the “unspeakable horrors of police brutality” and warned that the “whirlwinds of revolt” would shake the nation for as long as injustice prevailed. Sokol says that King employed the language of the Bible as well as the Constitution through the years. He spoke to the whites and to the blacks, urging African Americans to join in the non-violent struggle for freedom and counseling whites that if they could overcome their racism, attack the inequality in their cities, and help to build a just nation, they too could join the beloved community.

After “I have a dream” speech, King began to exert more influence on the White House, working for the passage of civil rights laws, just as he continued to march along the dusty roads of the Deep South. His struggle bore first fruit when President Lindon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in July 1964, outlawing segregation in public life. He achieved another victory when, in 1965, President Johnson signed Voting Rights Act, enfranchising African Americans and buried the last legal vestige of the South’s Jim Crow system.

Sokol argued that King shaped how people, both within the country and around the world, thought about America and its ideals. He held out hope for oppressed people within and outside the country. He asked the nation to live up to its promises of freedom and democracy, goaded the government into enacting civil rights and voting rights laws, jabbed the nation for its barbarism overseas, implored it to see its poor people – to clothe them and house them and feed them. He kept faith in the principles expressed in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, thinking of those documents as “promissory notes” on which America had yet to make good. By the force of his will and with the eloquence of his voice, he convinced many others to believe in their nation even when that seemed to be asking the impossible.

By King’s last years, the black freedom struggle had split into at least two divergent movements. Moderates like Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Whitney Young of the Urban League occupied one end of the spectrum. They believed African Americans could still advance their causes through legislation, lawsuits, and electoral politics. They continued to support President Lyndon Johnson even as he escalated the Vietnam War. They had gained a foothold in the Washington establishment and remained committed to working within the system. At the other end of the spectrum stood the adherents of Black Power, who increasingly viewed America as irredeemable. Only one leader retained credibility with both camps: Marin Luther King.

The Heavens Might Crack offers a new look into the life, work and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Sokol shines a light on the unexplored aspects of King’s life and work and provides new perspectives on his rich legacy. The Heavens Might Crack is a meticulously researched work by a historian whose scholarship remains unmatched. It fills the gaps in scholarship on Martin Luther King Jr. and Civil Rights movement in America.

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