James Baldwin

photo by Max Petrus

















August 1968


Dear ________,

You ask why I persist in saying “they” killed Martin Luther King when it seems apparent to the majesty of the law that James Earl Ray acted alone. You ask because you know I do not mean some secret conspiratorial clique, though one may yet be revealed. Ray seems too miserable, too vacant to conspire, though as we well know, the least among us can and do.

You ask because you know when I say they, I mean white Americans. You wish mine were a cry from the torturer’s rack that I might recant in time. I am tortured and the tortured do lie and confabulate, but I stand by it. In the shock of the moment, a friend, a black friend, said to me, “If they can kill Martin, they can kill any of us.” My reply was it is precisely because they can kill any of us that Martin Luther King is dead.

If it were not Martin we were speaking of, if it were a child, a man, someone who might have taken Martin’s place in history if Martin, and not he, had died in an alley, a park, a stairwell, of poison and neglect, as we do every day, every night, children who would not be dead were they not black, you too would hold them responsible: slumlords, cops, crooked housing inspectors, uncaring social workers, the purveyors of unliveable wages, each a strand of the rope that is always at black throats like a noose.

Martin’s death too was at the hands of many. They are the brutal, desperate iconoclasts, who believe (sincerely, more the worse) that if the altar stone, for that is how they think of Martin, were smashed, then those who worshiped at the altar, seeing it was only a man, after all, and a dead nigger at that, might abandon their faith, disperse, and trouble them no more. Even Ray himself, I am sure, did not imagine for a moment he was ‘only’ killing a man, but rather a force, a fetish, which held him and them in thrall the way they thought Martin held his followers in thrall, only more so. For Martin’s followers, the students, marchers, sharecroppers, masses who made him the leader that he was, knew all along he was only a man and not an altar stone at all.

They are terrified. The idea of black and white community, which should comfort them, feels to them like death, and since Martin was everywhere, Chicago, New York, Memphis, no one was safe. Unless, unless, they could return to the dream from which they believed Martin kept waking them, the sleep in which history is forgotten, in which there is no history. Martin’s life was the price they would have to pay to maintain their doomed image of themselves: the “whites,” that invention of immigrant European serfs who purged themselves of their rainbow of nationalities solely to distinguish themselves from Negro slaves. I have said before that there are no “Negroes” anywhere in the world but in America; “Negroes” and “white people” are American historical constructions. When Negroes redefined what it meant to be black, and therefore what it meant to be white, whites responded not with relief that the old lie was done, but with violence, which Brother Rap Brown described so perfectly as being American as apple pie.

To ask who killed Martin is to ask who is responsible. To pretend that by punishing Ray, a lone, banal man, we have accomplished anything is to carry on the morbid fantasy that called forth the killing in the first place, the white man’s declaration of individual irresponsiblity: I owned no slaves, he says, I passed no segregation laws, I called no man nigger. Why do you pick on me? Those things are past. Now you black people, or whatever you want to be called, are responsible for your own fate. I mind my own business. Why do you blame me?

Why? Because you have done nothing, liberal or conservative, Southerner or Northerner, to alleviate my fear that behind that deadly American cheerfulness, that American smile that shows teeth as perfect as dime-store pearls (without the flaws that confer value on real pearls) you still believe that black people deserve what they are given, and white people deserve what they receive.

Do you know what terrifies me yet more? That late in this century, when our children will read as history what we call life, this country will have transformed itself into a cheerful, affluent police state, and instead of the black and white community we dream of now, Afro-Americans will find themselves half in jail and half bought out, and white America will have wed itself to the system like some women I have known, married to husbands who are brutal and reputable and rich. These women see their husbands for what they are, but they cannot divorce them, for they will lose the summer house, the parties, the country club, their very dependent, false identity, to which they have become addicted at the price of their souls. And they will listen to our complaints of second-class status with increasing irritation and boredom and say among themselves, why don’t those people go, not back to Africa, just away.

When that moment comes, they truly will have murdered Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rest of us as well.