Wednesday, April 4, 2018

What If?

Martin Luther King was assassinated fifty years ago today. In a year that saw many tumultuous events, perhaps none in 1968, at least here in the United States, was as devastating, as gut wrenching, and had as many far reaching consequences, as the murder of Dr. King in Memphis.

Five years ago on the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Preident Kennedy, I wrote this piece that raised the question: what would have happened had JFK not been assassinated? Contemplating that question, I had little trouble coming to the conclusion that most of the earth-shattering events that took place in the sixties after his assassination, would have taken place with or without a President Kennedy. For example I disagree with many historians who claim that had Kennedy lived, the Vietnam War would not have escalated to the extent it did. Because of that, and my firm belief that Kennedy had little impact on the Civil Rights movement, his death I reckoned, while a great tragedy to this country, was not as earth-shattering and life-altering as many folks make it out to be.

The impact of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, two months after Dr. King's, is a little more difficult to assess. Had Bobby Kennedy not been shot in Los Angeles, he might have (and it's a big might) become president. For the sake of argument, this piece in Newsweek from ten years ago asks the question, how would the theoretical presidency of Robert F. Kennedy been different from that of the man who won the 1968 election, Richard M. Nixon. On the most contentious issue of the day, the author is on the fence about Kennedy potentially being more successful in extricating the Untied States from Vietnam than Nixon. Of course, Nixon had Watergate, whose ramifications in every aspect, not the least of which being the general public's cynicism toward government, exists to this day. The Kennedys were no strangers to ignominious behavior, so one could argue there might have been a Watergate-like scandal in the RFK administration as well, but that would be only wild speculation.

Unlike the Kennedys, it would also be wild speculation to answer the question of what would have happened had Martin Luther King not been assassinated, as there are just too many what ifs on the table.

Because of his tragic demise, Martin Luther King will always be grouped together with the Kennedy brothers as one of the trio of tragic American heroes of the 1960s. If anyone had the gumption to re-create Mt. Rushmore in the likenesses of the most revered Americans of the second half of the twentieth century, I'm sure those three would be on the short list of subjects.

It's also true that the stock value of all three men soared after their assassinations. John and Robert Kennedy had detractors on both sides of the political spectrum during their lifetimes. President Kennedy was ambivalent about the issue of civil rights, something he was taken to task for by Martin Luther King. He took concrete action only after the reprehensible treatment of black protesters in Birmingham in 1963 and the refusal of southern governors including George Wallace to allow black students to enter state universities.

Robert Kennedy had a chameleon-like career, having first worked for the communist-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy in the fifties. As attorney general in his brother's administration, and the president's closest advisor, RFK had a mixed record on civil rights, being at first openly critical of the actions of Freedom Riders who attempted to ride integrated busses from Washington DC to New Orleans in 1961. The younger Kennedy was at one time a hawk who supported this country's early involvement in Vietnam. After his brother's death, RFK had an epiphany of sorts, joining forces with Martin Luther King in the struggle for human rights, justice and equality in this country, and also in his opposition to our involvement in Vietnam. Between his new found left wing politics as well as for literally letting his hair grow out (by mid-sixties standards), Bobby Kennedy became the guy dyed-in-the-wool American conservatives loved to hate.

However you could combine the Kennedy brothers' detractors (even counting those who disliked both brothers twice), and you still wouldn't come close to the number of Dr. King's detractors. In a poll taken in 1966, King had an approval rating of about one out of every three Americans. It's not hard to understand those Trumpian numbers when you consider the state of race relations in America at the time. Despite that, in the sixties, blacks constituted only about ten percent of the population, so given those numbers, it stands to reason that a good number of whites supported Dr. King. That was my experience as a child. I'm proud to say that both my parents, not always the most tolerant people when it came to race relations, were admirers of Dr. King while he was still alive.

It would also be a mistake to assume that all blacks were squarely behind him. The truth is, in the last few years of his life, Martin Luther King began to lose his luster and became irrelevant in the eyes of many African Americans who were unconvinced that his philosophy of non-violence as a means to impact change in this country, was any longer effective. King's criticism of the behavior of black youths in the urban riots that took place in the mid-sixties, made some African Americans see him as haughty and self-righteous. Part of Dr. King's fading standing in the African American community may also come from the fact that Dr. King was not only acceptable to, but deeply admired by many whites, where other leaders in the movement, especially those who espoused the term "black power", were not.

As for the reasons why so many white folks hated him, well, you name it. To Southern whites he was an uppity negro (not the word they would have used), who didn't know his place. To northern whites, he was a trouble maker for marching through their neighborhoods demanding that they open their communities to black folks. To other whites, his advocacy of the drastic re-distribution of wealth in this country, made him virtually a communist in their eyes. Finally to the government, run by whites, King's vocal opposition to the war, long before it became a popular stand, was unacceptable. The ancient, but still powerful FBI Tzar, J. Edgar Hoover, compiled a vast dossier on King, chronicling his sexual indiscretions among other things, which was ready at a moment's notice to be sprung upon the public if need be.

There were so many people out for Martin Luther King's hide, that thinking back upon it, in a decade that not only saw the assassinations of the tragic trio, but also those of many other civil rights leaders including Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Fred Hampton, it's almost inconceivable that Dr. King could have escaped the sixties alive. That point wasn't lost on King himself who on the night of April 3, 1968, delivered this bone-chillingly prophetic speech in Memphis:

If Dr. King had become irrelevant to some black people by that night, he would no longer be irrelevant the following evening, around 6PM Memphis time.

It was a Thursday and as was our custom, my mother, grandmother and I were returning home after eating out, as that was the day of the week my father kept his paint shop open late. The news came over the car radio that Dr. King had been shot. As I mentioned so often in this space, I had been through public figures being shot before and sadly this would not be the last time. We got home and turned on the TV for further developments.

Dr. King was pronounced dead about one hour after he had been shot.

The next day, much of my city was in flames.

Chicago played an important part in the legacy of Martin Luther King. He and his family moved into an apartment 1550 S. Hamlin in the city's blighted North Lawndale neighborhood as a part of his "campaign to end slums." Protesting for fair housing and integration in this city, King led marches in the all white suburb of Cicero (where my father's shop was), and the neighborhood of Marquette Park where he got hit in the head with a brick. He famously said of that experience:
I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I've seen here today.
The day after Martin Luther King died, conflicts sprung up in African American neighborhoods all over the city. It is said that street gangs like the Blackstone Rangers who operated out of the Woodlawn neighborhood, managed to keep tensioins to a minimum on the south side. The same cannot be said about the more recently transitioining communities on the west side, where in the afternoon of April 5th, groups of angry teenagers began began throwing rocks into the windows of white owned businesses. The violence escalated rapidly as adults joined in what became a free-for-all including the torching of businesses and residences, shooting, looting, rock throwing at firemen trying to put out the fires, the calling in of the National Guard, and orders from the mayor to them to shoot to kill all arsonists. The chaos lasted about 48 hours and destroyed hundreds of homes, businesses and institutions over a large swath of the west side.

Here are two posts, one from the Chicago Tribune, the other from Chicago's National Public Radio station, WBEZ, that chronicle the events that took place in Chicago after the assassination of Martin Luther King, including many first hand accounts.

The riots, or rebellions if you prefer, following the assassination of Martin Luther King in Chicago did not set into motion the phenomenon known as "white flight" in Chicago, but greatly exacerbated it. Tensions between white and black people may have very well reached their all time high in the years following Dr. King's death.

There were white people who found it ironic that black people would choose to commit acts of violence in protest of the death of a man who spent his life preaching against violence.

Then there were black people who found it ironic that a white man killed the one black leader who was respected by black and white people alike. If there was no hope for Martin Luther King, how could there be hope for anybody else?

In the first post I wrote on Dr. King, a few years ago, I finally understood that it was that sense of hopelessness that fueled the rage that follwed his death, and came to the conclusion that regretfully, the violence that ensued, well at least some of it, was justified. Unfortunately, most of the neighborhoods that were destroyed by the violence following Dr. King's death never recovered. Vacant lots continue to mark the spots of the buildings that were destroyed fifty years ago. As bad as the conditions of the west side were when King and his family, in many respects, the people who live there are worse off today.

From the WBEZ article I posted above, there is a fascinating conversation between two residents of North Lawndale. Both have a connection to Marshall High School in that community. Rev. Donald McFadden was a student at Marshall when Dr. King was killed. He recalls his participation in the violence after King's death, including walking out of Marshall during school and taking part in the commandeering of a couple of CTA busses which were driven by kids, chauffeuring a bunch of fellow students to Austin High School, for the sole purpose of starting a "rumble" with the white students at that school. The other member of the conversation is a current student at Marshall, Damontae Warren, who lost his twin brother in a shooting last year, and participated in that school's recent walkout in reaction to gun violence.In the interview, young Mr. Warren expresses shock at the brazen actions of Rev. McFadden, who is now a minister in the neighborhood, and his fellow students. In response, Rev. McFadden looked back at the devastating consequences of their actions fifty years ago, which are still very visible in the community, expressing some regret that they "tossed out the window" the non-violent teachings of Martin Luther King, and expresses admiration to the young students' commitment to King's teachings. Here is their entire recorded conversation:


One could rush to judgement that had Martin Luther King not been killed, at least the riots in Chicago and many other American cities would not have taken place. However, riots had occurred in many other cities in previous years, so there is no reason to believe that Chicago would not have had its turn. If Dr. King had lived, we have to ask would he have continued to lose standing in the African American community in his message of non-violence, or would the pendulum have eventually swung back in his favor. If that were the case, would the moral authority and respectability of a living Dr. King, (rather than a revered dead icon) helped serve as a role model for young people in this country. There is simply no way of knowing. His death certainly left a huge void in the movement for equal rights and opportunity in this country, one that has never been filled. Would his real presense and influence have made a difference in the economic struggles of poor people in this country? Once again, we'll never know.

Dr. King spoke the truth when he said in his final speech that he was only fighting so that all Americans might experience the fulfillment of the the promises made in this country's original mission statement, our constitution. Quoting myself:
For that noble cause he went to jail in Birmingham. For that bricks were thrown at him in Chicago. For that he was killed in Memphis.
Martin Luther King was fond of saying: "Only light can extinguish the darkness, you cannot extinguish it with more darkness." Dr. King himself was the light, and today we recognize the half century mark of that light being extinguished.

It is impossible to imagine what would have become of our country and our world had Martin Luther King been granted a few more years, or even the gift of longevity. We've come a long way since his death, and in so many ways the memory of his life has served as a beacon. But as our difficult times keep reminding us, clearly we still have a long way to go.

Maybe we'll see a flicker of that light rekindling in our young who have shown quite recently that they will not stand by and watch helplessly and hopelessly as those in power try to reap the seeds of hatred, anger, distrust and division they have so eagerly planted among us. 

And maybe just maybe our next generation who are about to become voting age, will help pave for us the path to the promised land that Dr. King viewed with his own eyes, but was not allowed to experience himself.

That flicker of light is all we have right now. It should be incumbent upon those of us of good will to keep it burning.

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