Podcast Review: Holy Week

A podcast from The Atlantic released last month.

Growing up through the public school system, my recollection is that American history classes tended to be of a similar trajectory. We’d start with the American Revolutionary War, and basically proceed through the big wars thereafter: the American Civil War, WWI, maybe dabble in the early 20th century reforms, including women gaining the right to vote, WWII, and then end with the Civil Rights movement beginning with Emmett Till’s murder in 1955 (and/or Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat later that same year) and end with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr in April 1968. His assassination always felt like a footnote to the way the Civil Rights movement was taught in terms of, all this great stuff was accomplished despite resistance, and then oh yeah, the main leader of the movement was assassinated, but everything ultimately worked out. But did it? In the long-term sense, sure, as but one significant example, a little more than 40 years after King was killed in Memphis at a time when he was more despised by the American public than the Vietnam War and disfavored by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the United States elected the first Black man, Barack Obama, to the presidency. What’s not talked about, at least not in my experience, are the immediate ripple effects of King’s assassination. Vann Newkirk, who hosted the fantastic Floodlines podcast with The Atlantic, hosts Holy Week: The Story of a Revolution Undone. The podcast covers the week after King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

Perhaps the most remarkable fact about the podcast in hindsight after having listened to all eight parts released last month is that Newkirk never uses King’s voice. There are no snippets from his “I Have a Dream” speech, and not even his last speech the day before he died, which I admire greatly and where King appeared to foretell his own death, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” And certainly, James Early Ray, King’s assassin, and his fate are not mentioned at all. Both of these decisions I think are intentional choices by Newkirk because instead, he wants us to hear from movement leaders around that time and what they were thinking and feeling, from the more radical movement adjacent leaders and what they were thinking and feeling, and from ordinary people who took to the 100 or so city streets across the country in protest, in uprising, in riot, and what they were thinking and feeling.

All of which makes for an engrossing, intimate portrait of that “holy week” after King’s assassination. For one, it never ceases to astonish me that there are still people alive today who were witness to that time, and not just witnesses, but in some cases, integral players in shaping history. That history I grew up learning in my textbooks isn’t so long ago after all.

Another fact I find startling to consider. In riots across the country after King’s assassination, six people died, 700 people were injured, and 5,800 people were arrested. Adjusted for inflation, there was about $103 million worth of property damage. By comparison, during the L.A. Riots in April 1992, 63 people died, 2,383 people were injured, and 12,111 people were arrested. Adjusted for inflation, there was about $8.6 billion worth of property damage. One city compared to 100! I bring up this striking contrast because thanks to the riots, and particularly Spiro Agnew’s rhetoric about them, who would go on to be Richard Nixon’s vice president, American society went in a completely different direction, away from further progress on equality, and certainly away from any talk of a domestic plan akin to the Marshall Plan for Black America.

I was wondering about that while listening to the podcast. What are the spillovers effects of such a tumultuous decade leading into the 1970s? When people think we are living in unprecedented times — and to be sure, in some ways, we are with 9/11, the Obama and Trump presidencies for obviously different reasons, and a once-in-a-century pandemic — it’s hard to look at the 1960s and maintain that opinion. One president was assassinated, his brother, who was running for president, was assassinated, King was assassinated, Malcolm X was assassinated, there were regular terrorist bombings and attacks, Jim Crow, etc. and so forth. Plus, aside from the riots after King’s assassination, there were regular summer riots the years prior. Then, the Vietnam War, which was far deadlier than the Afghanistan or Iraq Wars, and the Vietnam War’s “engine” was a draft. But what are the spillover effects? It’s not like everything was neatly tied into a bow after such a strife-ridden decade, especially as regards race relations and especially after King was assassinated. Yes, as Newkirk points out and as I mentioned, King was unpopular prior to his death because he was wading into the sanitation strikes in Memphis, the Poor People’s Campaign, and arguing against the Vietnam War. For years, he’d already been spied on and sabotaged by the FBI. But all the same, killing him was a different matter entirely. When Newkirk interviews various people from that time or plays interviews from that time, the collective “they” is used, i.e., “they” killed him. In this case, “they” is white America. It wasn’t a lone gunman, it was white America killing the one peaceful, nonviolent, good guy, the one person standing between white America and younger, more radical Black Americans.

If you enjoy history, I highly recommend giving this eight-part podcast a listen. If you were paying attention to the George Floyd protests in 2020 or the Ferguson protests in 2014, you will feel like echoes of history are still reverberating in our present moment, and that’s because they are.

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