The Heavens Might Crack
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The Heavens Might Crack

The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Title Details

Pages: 352

Illustrations: 15 b&w images

Trim size: 6.000in x 9.000in



Pub Date: 11/01/2023

ISBN: 9-780-8203-6554-1

List Price: $24.95

Subsidies and Partnerships

Published with the generous support of Sarah Mills Hodge Fund

The Heavens Might Crack

The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

How MLK’s assassination acted as a tipping point in America’s racial history

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  • Description
  • Reviews

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Today, his murder is seen as a national tragedy, a moment of collective shame. Yet at the time, King was a polarizing figure—scorned by many white Americans, worshipped by some African Americans and liberal whites, and deemed irrelevant by younger blacks—and his assassination was met with uncomfortably mixed reactions. In The Heavens Might Crack, historian Jason Sokol traces these diverse responses, shedding new light on a moment when our highest ideals were brought low.

Riots tore through American cities while some whites celebrated King’s death. The effects rippled across the globe, from London to Johannesburg, and in Washington, DC, his murder spurred major gun control legislation. King’s assassination acted as a tipping point in the nation’s racial history. Just a few years prior, with the enactment of landmark civil rights laws, peaceful progress toward equality seemed probable. With King’s death, most agreed that the final flicker of hope for a multiracial America had been extinguished. The assassination exposed an enduring white racism and contributed to a rising militancy among African Americans. In the place of hope, outrage and indifference, anger and apathy reigned. King’s ideal of the beloved community dissolved into a fanciful dream.

A deeply moving account of a country coming to terms with an act of shocking violence, The Heavens Might Crack reveals how King’s assassination shaped his own legacy—from a controversial figure in 1968 to a canonized hero today—and the course of the civil rights movement and race relations in America.

This striking and complex new work looks not so much at King himself as it does at the impact of his death and how it opened a wound in the country that has yet to heal. Sokol moves from the hours and days after his death to the present day, looking at Obama's election, the Black Lives Matter movement, and NFL player Colin Kaepernick's taking a knee during the national anthem.

—Boston Globe

Revealing. . . . Sokol mines oral histories, books, and contemporaneous news stories to pull together an account that reminds us that King was a radical who ignited passions both good and bad. . . . While [the] broad outlines of King's story are well chronicled and fairly well known, the real punch in Sokol's book comes as it drives home the depth of the animus stirred by King and how it lingered in the months and years after his assassination.

—Washington Post

Drawing on archival sources, oral histories, interviews, and local, national, and even college newspapers, Sokol offers a richly detailed analysis of the impact of King's death on blacks and whites of all stripes. . . . A revealing examination of how a 'courageous dissident' became a martyred saint.

—Kirkus Reviews

The Heavens Might Crack places King in a balanced perspective both at home and abroad. This even-handed account helps explain the irony that King, in his day, was largely unpopular outside of African American communities yet now has become a symbol of American democracy. A highly readable volume that will appeal to a spectrum of scholars, students, and the general public interested in African American politics.

—Library Journal, starred review

Sokol is an assured writer, deploying revealing, striking anecdotes. . . . This book offers valuable yet painful insight into the paradox of King's stature throughout history.

—Publishers Weekly

The Heavens Might Crack is an important, timely, and invigorating addition to the vast literature on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. By examining the evolution of King's legacy after his death with great care and deft analysis, historian Jason Sokol offers new insights into the meaning of a life that continues to shape contemporary American democracy.

—Peniel E. Joseph, author of Stokely: A Life

In The Heavens Might Crack, Jason Sokol explores the differing reactions to what happened in Memphis on April 4, 1968. . . . Significantly, Sokol writes, 'white contempt for King knew no geographical bounds.' To an extent that might shock many today, large numbers of whites across the country were happy about what had happened.

—New York Review of Books

Just when one suspects that King scholarship reached a point of diminishing returns, along comes a book that manages to say something original. Jason Sokol's The Heavens Might Crack achieves this feat by exploring the short-term impact of King's death and the long-term struggle to define and memorialize his significance.

—American Historical Review

Beginning with the day of King's murder, when most historical accounts of Martin Luther King end, Sokol underlines how King's death shaped our future and reveals why his assassination was far more than the death of one man. In vivid prose rooted in deep, wide-ranging research, The Heavens Might Crack is an indispensable read for all who would comprehend the past and care for our future.

—Harvard Sitkoff, author of King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop

Jason Sokol's book is not a biography of MLK, it is something more: a weaving of King's life both in the hostile contemporary reactions he evoked and, fifty years later, in the mythic adoration of a dream—all the while revealing the deep racial antipathy that persists in American life. A most powerful book: well written, deeply researched, thoughtful, and honest.

—Nick Salvatore, Maurice and Hinda Neufeld Founders Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Professor of American Studies, Cornell University

About the Author/Editor

JASON SOKOL is a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire. He is the author of two critically acclaimed books on the history of the civil rights movement: All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn and There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975. Sokol lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts.