Fifty years ago this week, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered. Anyone alive at the time, in North America at least, remembers where they were when they heard the news. Here’s my account, from my forthcoming memoir Red Squad.
King’s assassination came against the backdrop of ongoing unrest, including violent demonstrations, in Mount Greenwood, a white neighbourhood where I grew up on the Southwest Side of Chicago. The instigating event was the transfer of nine black students to the local public school in January 1968. The first full account of that event, a chapter in Red Squad, will appear in this summer’s issue of Taddle Creek magazine.
After dinner on Thursday 4 April, my mother, my younger sister Roxe and I went shopping. Easter was coming on the 14th, and we all needed new dresses. We went to Evergreen Plaza, the major shopping mall in our corner of the Southwest Side, and one that was integrated, drawing customers from surrounding white and black neighbourhoods.[i]
On our way to the girls’ clothing department of Carson Pirie Scott & Co., a major Chicago department store, we passed through the home entertainment section, where all the new TV sets were broadcasting the same image – President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“Why is LBJ on TV?” my mother asked, without stopping. It was just after 8pm and the store was open for only another hour. Mom wondered about the president being on TV in prime time because only five days earlier, on 31 March, he’d announced in a televised speech that he would not be seeking re-election: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
When we returned home and as my mother parked the car, my father rushed outside, urging us, “Come inside! Come inside!”
“What’s the hurry?” we all asked.
“Martin Luther King has been killed and riots are breaking out,” Dad said.
In the days after King’s assassination, riots did indeed break out in 125 cities and towns across the U.S. Some began soon after news of the shooting – notably, in Washington, D.C. Rioting in Chicago began the next day.
LBJ’s TV appearance that night had been to announce King’s “brutal slaying” in Memphis, Tennessee. In his brief statement, broadcast on radio and TV, Johnson continued:
I ask every citizen to reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King, who lived by nonviolence…. I have just conveyed the sympathy of Mrs. Johnson and myself to his widow, Mrs. King. I know that every American of good will joins me in mourning the death of this outstanding leader and in praying for peace and understanding throughout this land. We can achieve nothing by lawlessness and divisiveness among the American people. It is only by joining together and only by working together that we can continue to move toward equality and fulfillment for all of our people. I hope that all Americans tonight will search their hearts as they ponder this most tragic incident.
Perhaps the most moving, heartfelt eulogy of King was given that night by Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was campaigning for the Democratic nomination in the U.S. presidential election to be held later that year. At a campaign stop in Indianapolis, Indiana, he broke the news of King’s murder to a largely black crowd and proceeded to memorialize the civil rights leader in extemporaneous remarks that are considered to be among the greatest American speeches of the 20th century.
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black — considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.
We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.
Two months later, on 5 June, Kennedy himself was assassinated in Los Angeles, just after winning the Democratic primary in California.
[i] Evergreen Plaza opened in 1952, closed in 2013 and was demolished in 2015.
The manuscript is finished, and out for consideration…
There is, one might say, a 50-year horizon for cultural memory, corresponding roughly to the life span of an adult. Once a period of history gets to be 50 years old, the sun of memory sets over that horizon and is replaced by the moonlight of myth. Moonlight is more romantic and produces shadows and glints that are invisible by day. But it is also not very good to see by; and myth never displays the past as accurately as history does, or tries to.
— Adam Kirsch[i]
While history happens at the level of great events, these micro-events get washed out. Yet, for the individuals, the latter are history: the past as looked at across a distance of 50, 60, 70 years. Who’s to say that their past, however individual and anecdotal, is any less history than the Big Story line we know in conventional narratives?
— Robert Darnton[ii]
by Terry Murray
Chapter 1: Introduction
Before the National Security Agency in the U.S. and the Communications Security Establishment in Canada, there was the Red Squad in Chicago. From the 1880s through the 1970s, this arm of the Chicago Police Department (CPD) kept tabs on anarchists, labour activists, Communists and people thought to be Communist, civil rights groups and people who opposed the Vietnam War — political dissenters militant or mild. The Red Squad’s techniques of overt and covert surveillance and infiltration were cruder than those used in the digital age — even ham-handed — but they were no less effective.
Even before the Red Squad was shut down after 11 years of litigation by a 1985 court decision and its files released to a Chicago archive, my parents knew, from comments made by employers and by the squad’s less than subtle techniques, that they were in its records. What earned them that distinction? In the late 1960s, they had worked to support the desegregation of the public school in our conservative, white South Side neighbourhood, and independently produced an innovative programme for preparing underemployed young black adults for lucrative jobs in the nascent computer industry.
All of us – my parents, my sisters and I – also opposed the Vietnam War, although it was principally I who demonstrated, organized study sessions and arranged speaking engagements for more radical activists.
Although entirely lawful, all those activities had negative repercussions: We were ostracized by our neighbours, our house was bombed and my father was forced out of his job with IBM.
Our Red Squad files (I later learned that I had a file too, although I was only 16 at the time), don’t contain documentation of all of those activities. But the threat of surveillance, not to mention the actual reports sent to my father’s employer, made the Red Squad emblematic of those years and coloured the rest of our lives. The events of that time led to the dissolution of my parents’ marriage and to one of my sisters and me leaving the U.S. for Canada, where we continue to live. My other sister, quite young (aged eight to 10 years old) at the time, remained in the U.S. but of course was also affected by the aftermath of those days.
Perhaps the most unexpected outcome of all was that my once-progressive father turned his back on his pioneering efforts and the principles he had espoused, and became increasingly racist and politically and socially conservative. My mother clung to her beliefs, and the resulting rift between my parents was a major contributor to their divorce nearly 10 years later.
After I decided to write my family’s story, Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s prequel/sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, was published. The publication was met with widespread outrage that Atticus Finch, the near-saintly paragon of racial justice of Mockingbird, was revealed to be a racist in Watchman. It didn’t seem impossible to me, given my father’s about-face, which mystified me for many years, until I began to examine his life more closely in reviewing the events of the late 1960s.
This book, however, is not an exercise in therapy, to try to come to terms with his puzzling behaviour. Instead, I want to pay tribute to my parents’ courage and forward thinking, my father’s reversal notwithstanding, which shaped my sisters and me.
My family’s story also illuminates an under-reported event from that time: the desegregation, in early 1968, of Mount Greenwood Elementary School, that South Side Chicago public school, which produced neighbourhood protests reminiscent of those accompanying the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, 10 years earlier. That may be an overstatement of the incident’s significance, but several chroniclers of that tumultuous decade agree that it was an important and overlooked chapter in Chicago’s civil rights history, and one that continues to reverberate.
Chicago itself was important because it was the first Northern city chosen by Martin Luther King, Jr., as a testing ground for his non-violent civil rights efforts that had been successful in the South. His focus shifted from voting and other Constitutionally-guaranteed rights that had largely been secured, at least in legislation, in 1964 and 1965, and he changed the priority of the Chicago movement from schools to housing. The transplantation of those efforts in the North has been judged as largely unsuccessful, and Chicago remains one of the most segregated cities in the U.S.
The major events in my family’s story occurred between 1967 and 1970, a period during which the civil rights movement is often said to have ended, even before King’s assassination in 1968. If that was the case, no one told the people of Chicago, or my neighbours, and recent events – racially-motivated killings and the rise of Donald Trump as a political force in the U.S. – show the need for it is far from over.
And, as the revelations by Edward Snowden and others have shown, the age of government surveillance in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere isn’t over either, and may have simply taken a new form.
[i] “My Jewish Mother Was a Communist, and Other Tales of Lost Leftists,” by Adam Kirsch, Tablet magazine, 3 September 2013 – review of Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem; http://tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/142934/kirsch-lethem-dissident-gardens (accessed 30 May 2015)
[ii] Robert Darnton, quoted in Almost a Family, by John Darnton; Anchor, 2012, p. 235.
Copyright © Terry Murray 2016