Just over a month later, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Parks again directly addressed Life’s readers: “[Dr. King] protested the way American whites preferred that he protest—nonviolently. He spent the last dozen years of his life preaching love to men of all colors. And for all this, a man, white like you, blasted a bullet through his neck. And in doing so the madman has just about eliminated the last symbol of peace between us. We must struggle to distinguish between his act and your conscience…. Believe this, no matter what anyone else tells you: you have pushed us to the precipice. Of course we don’t blame you all literally, but we cannot control what is deep in our hearts. The thousands of blacks killed between 1868 and 1968 for just trying to vote, the slayings of little Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, the three civil rights workers Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, and now Martin Luther King, have not endeared our hearts to you. Too many of us are still unaccounted for in the terror-ridden swamp lands of the South.” Replace these names with those of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbury, and others, and this might have been written last week.
I find it striking that despite this justifiable anger and frustration, Parks opts to conclude this article with a more conciliatory message: “Now that he lies dead from a lower law, we begin to wonder if love is enough. Racism still engulfs us. The fires still smoulder and the extremists, black and white, are buying the guns. Everywhere—Army troops stand ready. Our President is warned against going to Atlanta. America is indeed in a state of shock. The white man, stricken, must stay firm in his conscience, and the black man must see that he does. If the death of this great man does not unite us, we are committing ourselves to suicide. If his lessons are not absorbed by the whites, by Congress, by my black brothers, by any who would use violence to dishonor his memory, that “dream” he had could vanish into a nightmare. You and I can fulfill his dream by observing his higher law of nonviolence to the echo of his drumbeat. To my black brothers, I say, remember his words: ‘Protest courageously, with dignity and Christian love. History will then say there lived a great people—a black people—who injected new meaning into the veins of civilization. This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility.’” Parks’s generosity, in words and pictures, is one of the defining characteristics of his work. As Bryan Stevenson recently observed, the respect he commanded from the editors at Life allowed him to present a nonwhite perspective in the pages of a decidedly white magazine.