I can still remember exactly where I was, and what I was doing, when they told me that I killed Martin Luther King. I was in my house, watching our old black and white TV, and I was nine years old. A talking head looked me right in the eye and said that, while I may not have pulled the trigger, “we ALL killed Dr. King”. I didn’t know then that it was the first of thousands of times I’d hear that over the next forty-seven years.
“We ALL” didn’t. Not just we nine-year-olds didn’t, but all of the people, black and white, who supported his ideal of equality, didn’t. But not just them. People who didn’t support Dr. King’s ideas, disagreed with them, even people who were indifferent to them…they didn’t kill him , either.
James Earl Ray (and any accomplices he might have had) killed Martin Luther King, and to say otherwise trivializes his evil act.
But, to a lot of folks, especially in the media and the academy, it sounded wise, circumspect, gratifyingly contrite and, most importantly, in step with the Zeitgeist (cool), to indict an entire people, and “culture” for the evil of one man.
It was, as I saw it, the beginning of a polemical pattern that metastasized into a philosophy. As I went from the late ’Sixties into the ‘Seventies, everything began to be “society’s fault”, America’s fault, “Western Civilization’s fault,” and basically, anybody’s fault but the person or group who actually DID whatever it was that was done. Kids did drugs because of “societal pressure”, violent criminals, who’ve been committing violent crimes for thousands of years, suddenly killed old ladies and children through no fault of their own, but “because of our society”. Fathers who abandoned their children were simply obeying some sort of cultural imperative that society had thrust upon them.
When evil actions are everybody’s fault, they’re nobody’s fault. And, when we erase individual responsibility, as we’ve been desperately doing for all of these years, we make doing evil and doing good equally meaningless. Just random acts blowing in the wind of circumstance.
Dr. King would be the first to denounce such a “legacy”.