Whether King would have worked with the new militants and softened their tough rhetoric and tactics or whether King would have been drawn toward the ideology of separatism that was gaining sway is a question that can never be answered. At the time of his death he was losing support among many young black activists who saw him as too accommodating and his tactic of nonviolence too timid.
What is clear is that, with King gone, the movement lost its most effective advocate at reaching across racial lines, using both the soaring oratory of the preacher and the intellect of a philosopher to drive home the point that eliminating oppression is everybody's concern:
"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny," King wrote in "Letter from a Birmingham jail," four months before the March on Washington.
Julian Bond, chairman emeritus of the NAACP, calls King's death "a greater loss than we realize."
"We no longer had the guy who was speaking to white people and black people in the same language," Bond says. "I can't think of anybody who could do that in the way he did."
The Arab oil boycott and the rise of OPEC
The huge gains in civil rights and expansions of government programs to aid minorities and the poor took place during a time of almost unprecedented economic prosperity, much of it resting on a foundation of cheap oil from the Middle East. The gross domestic product per capita went from $15,644 in 1960 to $23,155 in 1973, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports (using 2005 dollars). Unemployment fell from around 7% in the spring and summer of 1961 to 4% at the end of 1965 and stayed at or below that for the rest of the decade. Median household income rose an astonishing 70% from 1950 to 1972. Whites felt happy and economically safe and many were willing, albeit grudgingly, to support desegregation efforts and government programs, such as Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, designed to lift black people. Even Richard Nixon, a conservative Republican, felt politically secure enough in his first term to back the strongest type of affirmative action measures -- fixed numerical quotas.
This relatively idyllic racial environment exploded in October 1973 when Egyptian jets roared over the Sinai Peninsula to start the Yom Kippur War. Angered by U.S. support for Israel during the conflict, a group of Persian Gulf oil producers led by Saudi Arabia halted exports to the United States and cut overall production. Then the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries began collective action to control, and raise oil prices. In 1970, oil cost $1.80 a barrel. In 1979, after the fall of the Shah of Iran, it was $34 a barrel. Today it hovers around $100 a barrel.
Economic good times lurched to a halt. The gross national product plunged by 6% between 1973 and 1975. Unemployment doubled during that time. Inflation soared. Business reacted to the increased cost of energy by holding down wages and began shipping jobs overseas searching for cheaper labor. Median household income actually fell from $36,451 in 1973 to $34,021 in 1996.
"It was a hard time," says Daniel Yergin, author of "The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World." "A lot of people were losing jobs, or feared they were going to lose jobs. Businesses were not investing. It led to a kind of bitterness in American politics."
White "tolerance" of civil rights, never strong to begin with, dried up. In 1978 the Passage of Proposition 13 in California heralded a revolt against taxes and government spending that persists until this day. "Preferences" for blacks and Hispanics came under attack in the courts and at the ballot boxes. In 1980 Ronald Reagan, running on cutting taxes and spending -- including funding "welfare queens" -- won in a landslide.
Some have argued that the "civil rights era" ended in Memphis when a sniper's bullet cut down Martin Luther King. A strong case could be made that it died in the Vienna meeting rooms of OPEC, the palaces of Riyadh and the streets of Tehran.
Milliken v. Bradley
In 1974 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a court-ordered school integration plan that involved busing black students from Detroit into 53 white suburban school districts. In rejecting the plan, the justices ruled that unless a suburban district has been involved in creating a segregated school district, it could not be subjected to court-mandated desegregation plans. In his dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall called the ruling a "giant step backwards."
Indeed, Milliken effectively brought an abrupt end to school integration efforts across district lines. From then on, school integration only took place in cities that had annexed suburban areas, or naturally when African-Americans moved out to the suburbs.
"Once the courts made clear that you could not engage in inter-district busing, it left the story to become what it has become," says Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. "As whites moved to the suburbs, you ended up with inner-city school systems that were 80 to 90% African-American. That was contrary to the Brown decision, which was to break the back of segregated schools and advance the integrating of our schools and educating our children together."
Black students were stuck in a deteriorating school system funded by a shaky tax base that often failed to attract and retain the best teachers. The impact on black education has been devastating. Indeed, since Milliken virtually all school reform efforts aimed at poor African-American students -- community control, vouchers, school uniforms, charter schools, No Child Left Behind -- can be seen as little more than attempts to make the doctrine of "separate but equal" work this time.
The crack epidemic and the war on drugs
Arguments have raged over whether crack cocaine is a more virulent and more addictive drug than its powdered cousin. But it was addictive enough -- and it was cheaper. As a result it swept through poor black communities during the 1980s like a typhoon, leaving devastation in its wake. The murder rate among young blacks in the inner cities quadrupled during a five-year period as gangs battled for control of the lucrative drug trade. School dropout rates soared. Infant mortality began to climb. In a 2005 paper, economists Steven Levitt and Kevin Murphy estimated that African-American's postwar social and economic progress "was not only stopped cold, but was often knocked as much as 10 years backwards" by the epidemic.
It was not just the disease that ravaged inner-city communities, it was also the cure. Stiff drug laws and increased law enforcement resulted in an explosion of black men being thrown in prison. By 2008 as the epidemic had run its course, 1 in 15 black men over the age of 18 was behind bars. The wave of incarcerations furthered shattered black families as more black men were either removed from the community or rendered unemployable, and thus less worthy of marriage when they were paroled. As a result, where 20% of black children lived with their mother but not their dad in 1960, by 1990 more than 50% were in homes without a father.
"Black Americans were hurt more by crack cocaine than by any other single cause since Jim Crow," Levitt and Murphy wrote.
The O.J. trial
When an all-black jury acquitted O.J. Simpson of charges of murdering his ex-wife and an acquaintance, black people cheered and whites gasped at both the verdict and the celebration. Generally, a sensational celebrity trial would not be considered a defining moment in race relations. But the reactions to the Simpson verdict laid bare, perhaps for the first time, the extent of the "Rashomon" nature of America's racial dynamic. Blacks and white looked at the exact same phenomena and can come to diametrically opposed conclusions.
Whites looked at the DNA evidence, the holes in Simpson's alibis, the fact that a bloody glove left behind at the murder scene matched another glove found near Simpson's home and concluded that he surely was guilty. But nine of the 12 jurors, either themselves or through a close friend or relative, had had a negative experience with law enforcement personnel and were susceptible to the defense argument that much of the incriminating evidence may have been planted.
That notion was helped when it was revealed that Mark Fuhrman, a Los Angeles police detective, had repeatedly used the n-word in a videotape after having denied he had ever uttered such a slur, and when asked about this seeming contradiction invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer.