When the Window Closed
As you've heard, today was the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr's assassination. Two worthwhile reminiscences: E.J. Dionne, on the King murder as the death knell for 1960s liberalism, and Kai Wright--a man with whom I shared an office wall for a year or so--on King's forgotten radicalism.
i have just one thing to add. In the incredibly consequential and ultimately horrific year of 1968, there was a period of not quite four days that I believe stands as the high-water mark for progressive politics in America: between March 31, when Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not stand for re-election, and April 4, when King was gunned down in Memphis. For those 90-odd hours, I imagine it was possible to believe that a proud liberal, probably Robert F. Kennedy, would win the White House, end the Vietnam War, begin to bring healing to the divisions of the period, and fulfill the promise of Johnson's Great Society. The killing didn't foreclose those possibilities, but it--or rather the riots that ensued--exacerbated the white backlash that ultimately helped elect Richard Nixon, and it began the demoralization and (to Dionne's point) self-doubt on the left that greatly deepened when Kennedy himself was murdered. The Chicago convention, at which the orphaned constituents of Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy first lost the nomination, then got their brains bashed in, was in some sense insult to injury.
Likely the promise of those four days was never realistic. Had there been no assassinations that year, had RFK won the presidency, things still might have come apart. Disengagement from Vietnam was never going to be easy, in a political or strategic sense. The Cold War was still on a low simmer, and we hadn't yet engaged China. (Indeed, with Kennedy instead of Nixon, who knows if that would have happened at all.) The Great Society was already stalled by 1968, and the racial backlash was going to continue anyway.
Even so, James Earl Ray's second victim was the hope that had bubbled up through the first few months of that year.