Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are enriched beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change, we are going to have to change the system.
– Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967
The murder of Dr. King on April 4, 1968, marked a sea change in black America’s long, tortuous sojourn in this nation-state. Of course, assassination of black leaders and sympathizers has been a mainstay of American life from even before this country’s inception. Still, the Civil Rights and Black Power era of the ’50s and ’60s featured an especially gruesome series of murders that included, to name only a few of the most spectacular:
+ November 22, 1963, A date seared into everybody’s consciousness. We watched on live TV half of President John Kennedy’s head get blown off on that mid-morning in Dallas.
+ Robert F. Kennedy’s gut-wrenching take-down in Los Angeles a mere six weeks after Dr. King’s assassination.
+ Medgar Evers (top state NAACP executive) collapsed into a pool of his own blood under the relentless rain of rifle and shotgun fire on the steps of his own Mississippi home, also in ’63. Evers’ killing fit seamlessly between the rhythmic drumbeats of black church bombings across the south.
+ Then, on February 21 of 1965, Malcolm X’s enormous black heart was shredded by gunfire as he stood on stage in Harlem’s famed Audubon Ballroom.
+ Since 1955, I have been troubled by an indefinable pain as the sad, sad saga of the lynching of Emmett Till, in a place ominously called Money, Mississippi, played out on our eight-inch Motorola television set. As a small child, I listened hard with little understanding while my elders recalled some of our own kinfolk who, unlike them, had opted to stay in the south (or had failed to escape) and therefore suffered fates identical to Emmett Till’s and so many faceless, nameless others.
Each of these murderous moments presented to our black consciousness as earth-rending points in time. But, again, none of these past or ongoing days and nights of terror affected, changed, black America as profoundly as the wholly expected, public, and unspeakably brutal execution of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
1968: How to Avoid the “Paralysis of Analysis”
I was a junior at Indiana University’s main campus in Bloomington in that revolutionary year. Our mass marches, demonstrations and protests, walk-outs, stand-ups, sit-ins, lay-ins, strikes, boycotts, and occupation of buildings paralleled and, more often than not, spearheaded the campus Hippies’, Yippies’, etc. assorted protests. They, understandably, were offended by the Vietnam War, and inspired by a renewed white Women’s Liberation Movement.
We black students protested unjust and racially discriminatory practices and polices of the University itself – especially its abominable admissions policy. There were 500 black students on this, the state of Indiana’s, flagship and largest state-supported university, a campus of 29,000 students. There were just three black professors, not one of whom was tenured. And, naturally, there were no courses, let alone curricula, which even pretended to address the 400-year-old history and contemporary lived experience of black folk in this nation-state. Thus, another of our non-negotiable demands was establishment of a degree-granting Black Studies Department.
We refused to allow our protests to be dismissed as momentary expressions of youthful exuberance. Through our marches, meetings, poetry slams, and classes, we questioned the fundamental assumptions of the University, especially its historical embrace of white supremacy/white racism . And, in concert with the anti-War movement, we challenged those who provided the financial wherewithal for corporations like Dow Chemical to do its lethal, on-campus research for napalm gas, which engulfed untold millions of Vietnamese in excruciating, fiery injury and death. We were at war, all right…at war with campus honchos who made peace with the war, and who were more committed to keeping peace on campus rather than in exploring the ways in which the University collaborated with the war efforts and its deliberate mis-education of all its students.
“Soul on Ice” Goes to College
In late ’67, Indiana University’s Black Theater Workshop was organized by black students to produce plays, poetry and nonfiction that addressed this nation-state’s real history, our present condition, and hoped-for revolutionary future . We breathed deeply, freely, of the burgeoning Black Arts Movement as it raced through the blackosphere like a fast-moving river. Those black tributaries flowed from, to, and back again through Harlem, Gary, Oakland, Madison, Watts, Ann Arbor, Chicago’s South and West Sides, Ohio’s Central State University, and New Jersey’s newly christened “New Ark.”
Our literary high priests and priestesses included, but were by no means limited to: Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Sonia Sanchez, Hoyt Fuller, Maya Angelou, Ishmael Reed, Rosa Guy, Sterling A. Brown, LeRoi Jones, Richard Wright, and, of course, the Master of them all, James Baldwin.
In ’68, the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Information published a black-busting tome entitled Soul On Ice. Eldridge Cleaver had done lots of California prison time, mainly for rape and robbery; but he was a powerful, even essential essayist. Soul On Ice provided a first-hand look at the Panthers sans the usual establishment media bias. Soul on Ice also chronicled Cleaver’s own astounding rise from prison inmate to Ramparts Magazine’s star, revolutionary writer.
The BTW converted Cleaver’s book into a play. Because his life and persona were so deeply conflicted, we divided the “Eldridge Cleaver” character into three parts: The Rapist; The Revolutionary; and The Writer. Guess which part I played.
The Murder of Dr. King
On April 4, 1968, I was hiking – sans umbrella – across IU’s idyllic campus to play rehearsal. A light, steady Spring rain began to fall, so I decided to cut through the blocks-long Student Union building.
I passed through the giant cafeteria and approached an open-area TV lounge. A large group of students stood gathered around a television. I stopped, but could hear only muffled voices. Just as I came up directly behind them, Walter Cronkite said, “….and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. died at 6:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.”
The students before me burst into loud, raucous whistles, hoots, and applause. They cheered. I stood directly behind them and watched and listened in open-mouthed shock….dumbfounded – not at the heart-stopping news – that had not had time to register – but at the utterly appalling scene unfolding right before my eyes.
I never saw the TV screen and could no longer hear it. I stared at the backs of these my fellow students for what seemed a long moment as some of them began to guffaw and slap each other’s backs.
Slowly….ever so slightly, the laughter began to subside. And then, en masse, they turned their faces in my direction — as though they shared a single neck. Their toothy, ear-to-ear grins looked weird, distorted. I could sense – feel – sharp-edged daggers of hate radiating from them. I could see their disgust at not just my presence among them but at my very existence. It was clear that I had intruded upon an electronic lynching and had inadvertently disrupted their blood lust. It was only then, however, that I noticed the thing that has come back to haunt me each and every 4th of April since that night: Every single one of these faces was “white.”
I dared not turn my back to these people. I tentatively began walking backwards, furtively eying each one of them as I carefully placed one foot behind the other. I made it out into the hallway and then sprinted to the nearest exit.
“Burn, Baby, Burn!” versus Learn, Baby, Learn!
I arrived at our director’s off-campus apartment soaking wet. She was a strikingly beautiful, jet-black East Indian political science PhD. candidate, a devotee of both Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi. Although she was East Indian, she “identified” completely with “black” Americans. Indeed, she was so dark-complected (black) that when the sun touched her skin just right, she actually sparkled.
Standing there, just inside her pad, dripping onto the threshold, I watched the girls gathered around the TV sobbing uncontrollably, hysterically. The guys, enraged, walked around the place pounding their fists into their hands, “We gotta get ’em! We gotta get ’em,” they alternately mumbled or shouted. “How could they kill him?!” somebody said. “Not this man!”
The TV began showing scenes of riots breaking out across the country: Chicago was ablaze; New York; L.A.; St. Louis; Detroit, even staid Indianapolis. Later, we learned that over 110 cities had gone up that night.
“We can’t meet violence with violence,” the director said finally. “If we even try,” she continued, “we will lose. They’ve got all the guns.”
“Not this one!,” a brother said, pulling out a shiny snub-nosed .38 pistol.
“Put that thing away! she ordered. “The last thing Dr. King would want you young people to do is commit violence in his name,” she declared. “Let’s use our heads! All of you must stay in school and graduate. It’s more important now than ever before that we complete and present this play.”
Like so many other black people, that night changed my life. I was one person before Dr. King’s murder, and a completely different person afterwards.