BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’ by Jason Sokol

c.2018, Basic Books
$32 ($42 Canada)
344 pages

One minute.

That’s all it can take to change history. Sixty seconds, as long as an average TV commercial or two, a few blinks of your eyes and nothing is ever the same. And things can keep changing, as you’ll see in the new book “The Heavens Might Crack” by Jason Sokol.

The evening of April 4, 1968, was ordinary, just like many others on the road.

Andrew Young hadn’t kept Martin Luther King Jr. satisfactorily apprised of a legal situation in Memphis, and was on the receiving end of a pillow fight. Later, “Young and [Pastor] James Orange shadowboxed in the parking lot” of Lorraine Hotel and, while preparing for the next event, King wondered if he might want a jacket for the cooling air. And then, a “firecracker” sound, and King was quiet…

By most accounts, King was prepared for his death. He’d discussed it with friends and family, and they knew that loving him would mean losing him; it had been this way for years but, says Sokol, “the early months of 1968 felt different.” White people largely feared and hated King. The FBI told him to “take his own life.” And yet, King hadn’t once backed down in his ideals.

Shock rolled through the nation following that spring evening. Some wept, and some questioned the need to go on. Others looted, burned, stood against the police in nearly every major city in the country. Many white Americans rejoiced, while Black militancy increased. Gun control, which the Senate had discussed just hours before King’s death, became a political hot-button.

And in the days that followed his assassination, it was feared that King’s legacy would be forgotten. Instead, it became sullied: says Sokol, “…the historical King — a courageous dissident who unsettled the powerful — would be replaced by a mythical one.”

Because it has been 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, it can be assumed that many Americans today are too young to remember it. “The Heavens Might Crack” serves as a good fill-in for them (and for the not-then-born), as well as a look back for those who can recall with great detail.

But beware — it’s a painful read, not because of how it’s written but because of what’s told. Author Jason Sokol picks the scab off old wounds that may’ve once seemed healed as he puts current events into reverse-perspective: readers might be surprised to see that some issues have softened with age, while others are as sharp today as they were then — and that includes shocking examples of racism, inequality, and violence. He doesn’t stop there, though: Sokol shows how King’s birthday became a reluctant holiday, and how his legacy leaves us with a “duty” to “make clear the substance of his actual teachings.”

This is a history book, to be sure, but it also feels quite meditative, making it the perfect read for those who remember and those who can’t. “The Heavens Might Crack” is highly recommended. You’ll be grabbed by it in the first minute.

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