In his memoir, Harry Belafonte recounts his last meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. shortly before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
By Lars Schall
“Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?”
— James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time —
In his memoirs, Harry Belafonte describes his last conversation with Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) before he was fatally shot shortly afterwards in Memphis, Tennessee. At that time, King became increasingly focused on protesting the Vietnam War, for which he lost much of his popularity with the American public. (1) At the same time, he turned his attention to the concerns of the poor, regardless of their ethnicity, as he prepared a March on Washington in the last months of his life which aimed to strengthen the economic and human rights of poor Americans. (2)
Belafonte writes that King seemed at their last meeting “quite agitated and preoccupied,“ and so he asked him, “what the problem was.“ King replied to him, „I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply. … We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.“ King expressed his fear, “that America may be losing what moral vision she may have had. … And I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.“ (3)
King was shot soon after, the problem of poverty and wars remained, and the house he saw burn is still burning today.
(1) King began to express his criticism of the Vietnam War in the sermon „Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence,“ delivered on April 4, 1967. Exactly one year later to the day, King was killed.
(2) In fact, King was conflating three evils. In a speech he gave on May 10, 1967, King made the point: „We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed.“
(3) Cf. Harry Belafonte Reflects on Working Toward Peace; https://www.scu.edu/mcae/architects-of-peace/Belafonte/essay.html. King sounded similar, when in 1967 he looked back on his „I Have a Dream“ speech in an interview with NBC reporter Sander Vanocur and said: „I must confess that that dream that I had that day has in many points turned into a nightmare. … I’ve gone through a lot of soul-searching and agonizing moments. And I’ve come to see that we have many more difficulties ahead and some of the old optimism was a little superficial and now it must be tempered with a solid realism. And I think the realistic fact is that we still have a long, long way to go…“ In that interview, King also paraphrased a question from writer James Baldwin: „What advantage is there in being integrated into a burning house?“ Cf. MLK Talks ‚New Phase‘ Of Civil Rights Struggle, 11 Months Before His Assassination; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xsbt3a7K-8