Back in 1961, near the high noon of the Cold War, a miracle took place in the town of Eureka, NC, a few miles outside of Goldsboro. A B-52 bomber carrying thermonuclear arms exploded violently in midair, and the mechanisms that trigger the atomic reaction began to activate. As far as the helpless civilian population of eastern North Carolina was concerned, only the hand of almighty God can adequately explain why this hydrogen bomb did not detonate into the Tarheel sky and bring about the end of days.
But the state of North Carolina did not come to an end that day. Thus in 2017 we find we are still in the position of having to ask ourselves if the spirit of world history might once again be spotted, alive and wide awake, in the otherwise humble city of Goldsboro, which is not alone among cities in North Carolina having a momentous part to play in the story that follows. The challenge will be to comprehend how the story of America and the human adventure appear when viewed through Tarheel eyes—and how it sounds to our Wilmington ears. These might be the only senses we are able to have, and we cannot rule out the possibility our perspective—the Wilmington angle—has a special insight into our historical moment, where confusion and bewilderment are the prevailing conditions of the day. Let us try, then, to adjust our eyes and ears.
When government experts examined the forensic condition of the megaton nuclear device that fell from heaven to land at Goldsboro, they found the electrical pulse that would have set off the nuclear chain reaction somehow failed to activate. In other words, because the positive and negative ends of the circuit did not connect, doomsday in North Carolina was averted. Perhaps it is better to say “postponed,” for the situation in Tarheel politics right now in the high summer of 2017 displays a striking resemblance to the unexploded thermonuclear bomb. Though the bomb was dismantled, the parts and materials did not get thrown away. Perhaps we can dig them up from the fields or take them off the shelf?
Enter Reverend William Barber, civil rights leader and Christian preacher, whose home church and headquarters can be found just a few miles from the site of that miraculous aversion of atomic catastrophe. The course of events that brought Rev. Barber to the place he stands today includes not only the specter of the disaster that never happened but also the shadow of an atrocity that did: Not a bomb dropped awry over North Carolina, but a bullet found its target in Tennessee.
The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. accomplished the death of a man, and the demolition of a triple-movement for justice King had conjured with his majestic insights and oracular magic. It was King who made it known to millions of people in America and beyond that racism, militarism and poverty are not separate or isolated phenomena but essentially intertwined. In order to fight any one of the “triple-evils,” King understood, we have to fight all three at once. If we try to fight racism, but remain silent about imperial wars; if we try to stop corporate exploitation but do not renounce national chauvinism; if we try to oppose war but make peace with big business; if we do anything other than fight all three struggles for justice at the same time, then we are guaranteed to fail.
As with the trigger mechanism in the bomb, the potential energies of justice will not be released unless we manage to connect the circuits. The genius of Dr. King’s politics is to be found in a fusion of three separate but equally real and urgent struggles.
Legend has it, at the time of his final journey, Dr. King chose to travel to Memphis after canceling plans to Wilmington. One can hardly convey the ironic pain of contemplating that Martin Luther King might have lived had he gone back to attempt an exorcism of the ghosts of the Secret 9. As is well-known to those who live in Wilmington, since the calamity of 1898, the municipal government had been under the well-established regime of the conspirators and their successors in the cause of white supremacy.
It is not known or agreed upon why Dr. King changed his plans, or how he might have made his appeal to the fragmented hearts of the people of Wilmington. In 1968 the integration of schools in Wilmington had not been attempted, nor had the city yet encountered the Wilmington Ten. Of course, Dr. King would have had his work cut out for him, to be sure. No doubt, too, there were one or two people at least in Wilmington who would have volunteered themselves to play the part of assassin. Still, things would not have turned out as they did in Memphis. Even in death, had Dr. King exhaled his last breath in Wilmington, the riots and upheaval that would have ensued would have shaken the firmament beyond its limits—or at least unleashed the social equivalent of a nuclear chain reaction.
The plutonium atoms in the Goldsboro bomb were not split in two, and therefore the heat of a thousand suns was not released. Therefore, the heavy hydrogen atoms contained in it were not made to fuse at their nucleus. The chain reaction, unleashing the energy that keeps matter itself held together, did not occur. Though the bomb was quiet in Goldsboro, a bullet found its target in Memphis. On one front, the people of Wilmington were oblivious to the averted catastrophe, while the murder of Dr. King, on the other front, would tear open wounds that had been inflicted 70 years prior.
If Dr. King had come to Wilmington, Reverend Barber might have been able to stay in Goldsboro, might never have moved to Goldsboro, might have set up a church in Wilmington, perhaps on the Northside, close to the river. When the ministry of the greatest American was brought to an end, the movements he gathered to himself and fused together, as if with the heat of a thousand suns, were split back into their pieces. The circuits Dr. King had completed were disconnected from one another, and the revolutionary energies that had grown up around him dissipated: from fusion to confusion. After the fission by the bullet of Memphis, the chain reaction of Dr. King’s fusion politics came to a halt,. For many years, no one could be found who would dare to inherit this powerful tradition. But the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, as surely as an atom shall swerve from the path of a long, straight line.
William Barber did not have to leave Goldsboro, nor did he have to stay in North Carolina. He could have built up a more ordinary ministry, settling for the now-typical interpretation of the legacy of Dr. King that strips the radiant hero of the dangerous message at the core of his thought. Like the remainders of the bomb that scattered nearby in the town called Eureka, the pieces of the theory propounded by Dr. King cannot be understood, much less reassembled, if the original design of the bomb isn’t handy.
At some point along the way, the minister had his moment of realization, as had Archimedes before him, as had Dr. King as he sat up in the haunted night in his kitchen, reheating the coffee, grappling with the mandates of conscience, and the reading of history. The necessity of the three-in-one struggle is a daunting thing to behold, but eureka, indeed!