05 April 2012

April 4, 1968

To describe the emotions in our home on April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King was assassinated, I have to go back to October 1962. I was nine years old, and was having a hard time decoding all the reasons my parents seemed so fearful. That was the month James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi, and the news (as I realize now, reviewing my fragmentary memories) was full of the violent resistance to his enrollment. For the first time, I heard my parents using a mysterious term, "knee-grow," an apparently medical term that made no sense as a source of fear, but it was clear that "knee-grows" were apparently causing big problems for the USA.

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The anxieties of fall 1962 were only just beginning. Later that month, the Cuban missile crisis seared itself into my consciousness as the first major political crisis I can still clearly remember. I can picture the front pages of newspapers, showing the mobilized U.S. Navy imposing its "quarantine" around Cuba. The lesson of October for me: the world outside my home had the ability to make my parents very fearful.

It wasn't long before I understood what "Negro" really meant, but the twin dangers of black people and Communists in my parents' worldview were frequently confirmed. In the fall of 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated. After we were supposed to be asleep, I heard my mother ask my father for reassurance that Lyndon Johnson was up to the task of confronting the Soviets. And their anxieties also had a local focus: Beginning with a voluntary program in 1963, Evanston's schools were becoming integrated.

In those years, we lived right on the boundary line between black Evanston and white Evanston, but my elementary school, Miller School (now a Montessori school), was halfway to Lake Michigan and almost completely white. During my elementary years, our school superintendents Oscar Chute and, later, Gregory Coffin, were both very committed to integration, and my parents (as we children realized from those late-night overheard conversations) were emphatically not. Well, at least my mother was not. She was the one who grew up surrounded by Nazi ideology.

By 1968, I was in my first year of high school. I started my diary that year; little did I know on January 1 what a tumultuous year it would be. Most of my early entries were lists of television programs watched and (when baseball season started) White Sox scores. Hoyt Wilhelm, with his strange name and equally strange knuckleball pitch, was my hero that season. But normalcy came to an abrupt end on April 4, my younger sister's fourth birthday, when the electrifying and awful news came that Martin King had been killed.

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My family went into crisis mode. My mother was sure that we white kids would be attacked if we showed up at school, so we were kept home for several days as I smoldered at our captivity. I used the time to listen to my home-made crystal radio (which received two stations, including WJJD, the "Country Gentlemen") and tried to make sense of what I was hearing. Finally back at school, our high school teachers encouraged us to understand the poison of racism--and I took them at their word, thus in a way proving correct my mother's worries about the Communists in the school administration.

The one thing I couldn't confess at school was the shock I felt at my mother's words, the very evening of King's death. I still remember the blonde end table next to the sofa where I was sitting; she sat on the other side. Between us was a table lamp with its brass base and spokes leading up to the socket and bulb. My mother said it served King right that he was murdered, because he had no right to bear the name of the great German reformer Martin Luther.

I suppose that I was still an atheist at that point, as were both my parents. But as I look back, I think my conversion may have begun with my attempts to confront and unravel that strange pronouncement. Soon after, I began to listen every Sunday night (surreptitiously, after bedtime) to the First Church of Deliverance radio broadcasts, hearing Rev. Clarence H. Cobbs pray for "the sick the shut-ins, and all those who love the Lord," always feeling strangely touched at that last phrase.

This meditation on April 4 ends with Martin Luther King's words to those who could not understand why he added a concern for peace and reconciliation to his racial justice portfolio. "Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?" To Martin King, Clarence H. Cobbs, Oscar Chute, and Gregory Coffin: thank you for your part in making these words so real for me. From humane schoolteachers and from radio voices, even from violence and words of hate so close at hand, came a new home, a new worldview, and a new purpose that keeps me going to this day.



"Preaching when parched."

"What does the Gospel look like?"

"Ray Bradbury gives twelve pieces of advice to young writers."

A Better Atonement... How not to write a book review (but see surprise ending).

"So, what has your experience of mainline churches been like?"

Online matchmaking: Harvard Business School, "Do Online Dating Platforms Help Those Who Need Them the Most?" . . .

. . . and Melanie Springer Mock, "Finding the One in Cyberspace." "...I’m not [critiquing] online dating sites necessarily, but rather the language they use to promote their product...."

Vladimir Putin's friend "Kudrin's game: The Man in the Middle." And Friday PS: the Moscow Times, "Kudrin's Group to Offer Unsolicited Advice. " (Will eventually go behind paywall.)

"Pennsylvania high court rejects final Mumia appeal."








link to purchase:
Otis Spann, "Tribute to Martin Luther King"
(at amazon.com)

2 comments:

Jeremy Mott said...

on April 4, 1968, at the age of 22, I was imprisoned for refusal to perform alternative service at Marion, Ill. I began serving the four-year sentence on Jan.22, 1968. This prison (at Marion) was and still is a maximum-security institution, built to replace Alcatraz. However, Marion had a "camp"---two dormitories where minimum-security inmates, including conscientious objectors, were held.
There were three other CO's in Marion: a selective objector from Indianapolis, an Amish man from Ohio, and a Puerto Rican selective objector from Chicago. (There were also about a dozen Jehovah's Witnesses, who kept to themselves, and some moonshiners and businessmen who had cheated the government.) We camp inmates were in absolutely no danger from the rest, even as we watched Chicago's West Side burn.
I can remember thinking that even prison was not turning out to be a strong witness against war.
(I learned later that in some other prisons, some CO's were having a terrible time.) When I was released on parole in 1969, I realized that the anti-war movement had already, for all practical purposes, destroyed the draft. But the Vietnam war ground on and on.
Peace, Jeremy Mott

Jeremy Mott said...

I'd like to add a few things that might make things more clear.
First, I grew up as a Friend. My
parents were both pacifists during World War II, and married as the war was ending. They joined Friends immediately. Many in our meeting worked for civil rights. So pacifism and civil rights were part of me.
Second, I was sentenced in Chicago.
Third, We inmates watched Chicago burn on TV.
In thoae days, I was not afraid of the future. I am more afraid of it now. Why? Jeremy