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PostMy Memories of April 4th, 1968 (David Duggan, USA, 04/05/18 6:01 pm)
Recollections of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
I was a 16-year old junior in high school and as I remember it was a Thursday (I checked and it was). I had just finished post-season gymnastics practice (which I figured would be my ticket to college), and was picked up by my father on his way home from his job at Fansteel, Inc., once a major employer in the Waukegan-North Chicago area of Lake County, at the northeast corner of Illinois. Fansteel fabricated the metals used in the space capsules and manufactured a number of specialty-metals for severe environments. As we were driving home, he said that Dr. King had been shot. This would have been in the time between 6 and 6:30 pm, and history records the shooting as occurring at 6:05 pm, which means that the news would have been fresh: perhaps conveyed in an interruption to a broadcast on WGN, the AM radio station to which radios in our home and cars were permanently set (cars didn't come with FM radios then: it was an option until mandated by federal regulation in the 1970s).
I recall no immediate reaction of sorrow or anything else for that matter. Though Dr. King had spent the summer of 1966 living in Chicago, I recall no ventures to the northern suburbs where I lived. Lake Forest was not "lily white" (there was an indigenous black community which had been there since shortly after the Civil War, serving largely as domestic help to the gentry who settled there), and it wasn't inherently conservative (it had its share of noblesse oblige limousine liberals). But I cannot say that it was inherently welcoming to "others" (read blacks, Jews, Hispanics). My family's attitude was probably consistent with this (my father was active in the Urban League which tried to find jobs for blacks in the trades and crafts), and may not have recognized that Dr. King was their best friend among that generation of black activists. That summer of 1966, a year after the Voting Rights Act passed, was the only time that Dr. King spent a significant amount of time in the North after his seminary and divinity training at Crozier and Boston University. It was in Chicago that Dr. King saw the effects of "de facto" segregation, not the "de jure" segregation under which he had been raised in the South. But the effects were the same: lousy housing, poor schools, limited job opportunities, and indifferent governmental services. There are stories that City ambulances refused to take pregnant black women to hospitals.
Chicago erupted in riots the next day, which continued through the weekend. Newly opened Cabrini Green public housing complex, half-a-mile from the City's Gold Coast (Astor Place), was one of the epicenters of the riots, which largely consumed the west-side of Chicago. That is when Mayor Richard J. (Boss) Daley gave his "shoot to kill" order to the police: anyone with a Molotov cocktail. Looters were to be let off easy: only "shoot to maim." But to a degree, these riots, utterly contrary to Dr. King's message of non-violence (he had been hit in the head by a brick thrown during one of his Chicago open-housing marches), reflected the deeper divide in the black community. Malcolm X had been killed in 1965, supposedly on the order of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad, from Chicago. Elijah, the spiritual godfather of Louis Farrakhan, preached a black separatist agenda, again contrary to Dr. King's message of integration, and being judged by the content of his character.
Two months later Bobby Kennedy was killed, two months after that the Chicago Police rioted at the Democratic Party convention, and three months later Richard Nixon was elected president in a squeaker, embarking on a "law and order" agenda with a side of Southern strategy. In fairness, however, Nixon did more to integrate Southern schools than any president before or since, guided by aide Patrick Moynihan's "benign neglect" policy of "watch what we do, not what we say." Woodstock was the next summer, and it appears through the lens of hind-sight that the white world had moved on: it was time to tune-in, turn-on, and drop out. The '60s officially ended in December 1969 at the Rolling Stones' concert at Altamont, California, where Hells Angels were engaged to provide security for $500 in beer money. One woman was killed and scores were injured. That was two days after Illinois Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton was shot in his bed by a combined crew of Cook County Sheriff's Police and the Chicago Police Department. One officer carried a shotgun and another a Thompson sub-machine gun. Later investigations showed that the police had fired more than 90 shots. Meanwhile the Chicago Seven Trial, alleging a conspiracy among Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden (Mr. Jane Fonda) and others, to interfere with the 1968 Democratic Convention, was turning into a circus in Judge Julius Hoffman's federal courtroom, and later Barack Obama fund-raiser Bill Ayers was leading the Weather Underground in the Days of Rage, smashing store windows along Chicago's Michigan Avenue shopping district. Nobody was sorry to see that decade go.
Fifty years hence, Cabrini Green has been torn down and turned into middle-class housing, the Stones are still alive and occasionally performing, and Barack Obama is fighting an inter-racial amalgam of community activists over the placement, design, traffic patterns and amenities (golf course?) surrounding his presidential library. Are we any better off than we were 50 years ago?
JE comments: A masterful panorama, David, and what an eventful few years. We may not be much better off than 50 years ago, but at least there isn't as much history.