Book details

The Heavens Might Crack

The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

By Jason Sokol

About the Book

A vivid portrait of how Americans grappled with King's death and legacy in the days, weeks, and months after his assassination

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. At the time of his murder, King was a polarizing figure--scorned by many white Americans, worshipped by some African Americans and liberal whites, and deemed irrelevant by many black youth. In The Heavens Might Crack, historian Jason Sokol traces the diverse responses, both in America and throughout the world, to King's death. Whether celebrating or mourning, most agreed that the final flicker of hope for a multiracial America had been extinguished.

A deeply moving account of a country coming to terms with an act of shocking violence, The Heavens Might Crack is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand America's fraught racial past and present.

About the Author

Jason Sokol is the Arthur K. Whitcomb Associate Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire. The author of two critically acclaimed books on the history of the civil rights movement, Sokol lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts.


"Jason Sokol has done it again! Following his insightful studies of white southerners in the civil rights era and of racial politics in the North, Sokol skillfully weaves the myriad reactions to Martin Luther King's assassination to provide a major perspective on the past half-century of race in the United States. 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, Emeritus Professor of History, University of New Hampshire

"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, 50 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, Cornell University

"In this powerful, moving account of King's death and its aftermath, historian Jason Sokol plumbs the depths of white racism to reveal a dark chapter in the nation's history that many of those who today celebrate King would like us to forget: the vicious attacks and intense loathing directed at King during his life; the callous, celebratory reactions to his assassination among a shockingly large segment of white America; the contentious battles over his legacy and public memory in the years that followed; and the cynical and self-serving appropriation and distortion of his message by the Right today. Coming at a moment when an open racist occupies the highest office in the land and white terrorists proudly march in our streets, Sokol's book helps us understand how we got here, and how the forces of hatred and bigotry that ended King's life were never fully extinguished but remain very much with us today. A must read."—Andrew W. Kahrl, author of Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America's Most Exclusive Shoreline

"Jason Sokol details with aching clarity how King's assassination and the urban uprisings of April 1968 sent shock waves across the landscapes of America's racial crisis and the world's revolts. Whites, taught to fear the "headline-hunting high priest of nonviolent violence," celebrated King's death and armed themselves for race war. Militant Blacks, having warmed to King's crusade against poverty and the Vietnam War, bitterly rejected his nonviolence. Politicians who spurned King in life immediately began to smooth an unthreatening icon for a post-racial America, a portrait at sharp odds with King's jagged opposition to inequality and militarism. With astonishing sweep, Sokol also recovers thousands of others who redeemed the suffering by re-dedicating themselves to peace and social justice: counter-rioters who prevented even more deadly violence in America's cities; university students who sat-in to protect the rights of maids and janitors; congressmen who pushed through landmark gun-control legislation; antiwar protesters in Berlin, Paris, and London; and Africans who proclaimed King a "Son of Black Africa" as they denounced American racism and South African apartheid. The heavens might have cracked, but Sokol's not-too-distant mirror shimmers with intensity and the recognition of King's continued relevance to our own travails."
-Thomas F. Jackson, Associate Professor of History, University of North Carolina