(With the sound of the sanctimony of the Colin Powells, Dubyas, and Tom Daschles of America ringing in our ears, now that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is drawing near, I thought I would share this essay I wrote a few years ago to commemorate the man’s death in 1968. )
April 4, 1968. I was watching TV that Thursday night when a bulletin flashed across the screen . Martin Luther King Jr. was dead, shot dead in Memphis. By the time I woke up the next morning to deliver papers, cities were on fire across the land. As I delivered the Washington Post to the customers on my route in the Maryland suburb that I lived in, I tried to make some sense of the storm. At school, my social studies teacher, a young guy who was teaching us about Karl Marx, said a few words over the public address system about the senseless and tragic murder The black kids seemed distant and some of the more racist white kids (those who wore their Wallace for President buttons to school), gleeful. I just wished there was something I could do.
In church that Sunday, the priest read a letter from the archbishop expressing sorrow at the assassination and the violent response it had wrought. His letter urged each and every one of us to pray and, additionally, contribute food and clothing to those who had been left homeless as a result of the revolt in the cities. My mother and I volunteered to join in a door-to-door collection campaign.
That Sunday afternoon we began. Mom waited in the car while a friend and I knocked on doors asking for a can or two of food. Everyone who was home offered something even if it was just a can of peas. We had covered about half of our neighborhood and the station wagon was more than half full. My teenage faith in humanity was restored.
Then I knocked on the next door. This house belonged to a man whose daughter sat next to me in English class. He owned a construction business and had always been nice to me. I knocked again His daughter came to the door. She said hi . I answered in kind and told her my purpose. She headed to the kitchen for some canned goods. On her way back with a couple cans her dad came into the front room. He nodded hello and asked me what I was up to. Collecting food for the people made homeless by the riots, I replied. His daughter proceeded to drop the cans she held into the bag I was carrying. I thanked her and turned around to leave.
“Wait a goddam minute!” yelled her dad. I turned around in shock.
“Yes sir?” I questioned.
“None of my food is going to them niggers,” he continued yelling. “Let ’em all die.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. This man was a Catholic like me. He believed in Jesus and Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself. But sir, I began. Give me back my food and get out of here, you niggerlover, he shouted. And stay away from my daughter. His daughter had already left the room in tears. I left shaking, not believing what had happened,
A couple months later, Bobby Kennedy was dead too. He’d been my choice for president. The funeral was on television and the train came through our town. I wanted to go down to the track to pay my respects, but was afraid to ask my dad. He had never expressed much like for the Kennedys and Bobby was probably his least favorite, although thirty years later he said he probably would have voted for him. My mom, on the other hand, was enthralled by the family. We settled for watching the proceedings on TV.
As we know, since that day in April 1968, Martin Luther King has become a virtual saint, with all that such a signifier connotes. Men and women of all political stripes take his name in vain. Warmakers and racists quote him as if the words he wrote in opposition to their world were written for them and not to them. As if it was the poor and the non-white who were King’s nemesis and not the rich and powerful and their police. These people have much more use for him as a dead man than they ever did when he was alive. Don’t fall for their lies.
RON JACOBS lives in Burlington, VT. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org