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How Martin Luther King Jr.'s crisis of faith can guide the Black Lives Matter movement

The civil rights leader all but left with the movement he helped push into the national spotlight in 1966.
MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech at 1963's March on Washington is well known, but it's hCentral Press, Getty Images

Not many people know about the dark period of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life.

The civil rights activist all but dropped out of the movement in 1966, just two years after the Civil Rights Act was passed. “He isolated himself because he felt isolated from the movement,” which was being influenced by young radicals who rejected King’s nonviolent methods, explains Jami Floyd, a lawyer turned journalist at WNYC.

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The success of the movement had also opened King’s eyes to the enormity of the problems faced by all marginalized people in America, not just black people but Latinx, immigrants and women. “Dr. King was a man of courage, and the anxiety, the depression and the crisis of faith came from his sense that the movement was bigger than just civil rights,” says Floyd. King’s advocacy had expanded to economic rights, ending poverty and even the Vietnam War, which made him understand that “the forces at work were greater than he could overcome, and he worried for the soul and spirit of America. And the eternal optimism of Dr. King began to waver.”

Floyd and her colleagues began planning the Apollo Theater’s annual, taking place Jan. 15, a year ago, when the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining traction. But the need for a clear way forward is even more relevant after the election of Donald Trump. The event will explore his book’s message for future activists through speakers including Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi, archival films, performances by Talib Kweli and others, spoken word poetry and more.

But King’s book about this period of his life, “Where Do We Go From Here?” published in 1967, didn’t come from a place of pessimism. In fact, he was overwhelmed with the need for action on a broader scale that would tip the balance toward justice for all. It’s a call to action for future leaders to take a look at their path and ask themselves that crucial question.

Sound familiar to where the state of the modern civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, finds itself now?

The original Civil Rights Movement started much the same way as the modern one: the killings of black men. The murder of 14-year-oldEmmett Tillin 1955 is the most commonly acknowledged beginning. King’s assassination in 1968 was only the latest in a targeted campaign against civil rights leaders — Malcolm X was killed in 1965, then Bobby Kennedy was shot a few months after King.

At this point, the movement had been going on for almost 20 years, and “there was a true exhaustion,” Floyd recalls. Activists understandably moved on to school and to work, understandably taking advantage of the hard-won rights they had fought for. “There was a lack of true leadership, a failure to pick up the mantle and carry on.”

Segregation in New York City schools ison the rise, with non-white children living in districts that are underfunded and lack experienced teachers. After the Supreme Court all but repealed the Voting Rights Act in 2013,cumbersome voter ID lawsreminiscent of Jim Crow were passed in key battleground states and blamed for massive voter disenfranchisement in last year’s election.

Legislation is important — as the biracial child of a white mother and a black father, Floyd personally knows this. She was born in 1964, the same year the Civil Rights Act was passed, but faced brutal racism from both black and white children.

“There was nobody like me in this city. It was not a progressive, happening, welcoming place for a multiracial kid,” she says. It wasn’t until theLoving v. Virginiadecision by the Supreme Court in 1967 that interracial marriage became legal. “And now you look around here and is anybody dating somebody who looks like themselves?”

The issues of mass incarceration, community policing and equality before the law are also not likely to change without official intervention. But it’s through connecting communities and finally having a long-delayed, honest conversation about race is the only way hearts and minds will be changed and racism can begin to be dismantled.

“Dr. King believed that ‘The arc of the universe is long, and it bends toward justice,’” she says.

“There are days when I really wonder if Dr. King had it right. But I, too, am an optimist, I think we just need to get back to the path that Dr. King and his brethren and sisters laid out for us. And the book is a good place to start.”

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