Hot Air: These Days, 50 Years Ago

Memory plays tricks on all of us. I’ve had it in my head for years — for decades — that my life changed, my consciousness was awakened, at about 6:00pm, Thursday, April 4, 1968. In my memory, I was sitting in my family’s living room at 1621 N. Natchez Ave. in Chi., the TV tuned to Channel 26, at the time a sort of weirdo off-brand station on the UHF dial that aired old slapstick movies, constant repeats of an Italian documentary on bizarre cultural practices and superstitions called Mondo Cane, and pro wrestling. Maybe I was channel surfing (although prob. not as we didn’t have a clicker in those days — I would have had to get up and walk over to the TV to change channels) or maybe I was hoping to see some old Buster Keaton nugget, but instead all I got was a photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. and somber music.

It was a picture like this.

The station kept that picture up, accompanied by a succession of dirges, all night long. I remember being alone. Who knows where my parents were. My bro. Joey was away at college in St. Paul, Minnesota.

I remember tears coming on, unexpectedly. Then I began sobbing. At first I felt like a fool — or, in the language of my peers and the times, a femme — for wanting to cry. But I couldn’t stop myself so I let go and wept deeply. From that moment on, I’d come to understand, I had become a citizen of the world rather than a dopey kid who worried about being thought a femme.

The death of the civil rights icon, the hero to much of Black America (and the Satan to all my white neighbors) touched my soul. I didn’t know him. He didn’t live on my block. I hadn’t trick or treated at his house nor had I shoveled his snow. His fight was never my fight — hell, I was white and on top of the world, a position due only to the color of my skin, a dynamic the man himself thought intrinsically evil. Yet I cared about him, his ideals, his battles. And at 6:00pm that April Thursday, an unusually warm one, it all came together for me — the world, the struggles of others, empathy, awareness, all of it crystallized in my pre-teen brain. I knew — 12-year-old me — at that very moment of Martin Luther King’s death that the world had changed.

Only it wasn’t 6:00pm on that Thursday. My memory — the neurons and axons, the dendrites and synapses, the connections they formed, the pictures and sounds and smells they etched into the storage areas of my developing mind, had squished a couple of days together to form a slightly false memory.

King was shot at 6:01pm that Thursday, acc’d’g to the best records I can find. He lay bleeding to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, his colleagues and aides holding towels against the gaping hole in his cheek, jaw, and neck to stanch the flow for some minutes until the ambulance arrived. Then he was whisked to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Memphis where emergency room doctors struggled to keep him alive for the better part of an hour. He was pronounced dead at 7:05pm.

So I couldn’t have been watching Ch. 26’s homage to the fallen man at 6:00pm that Thursday. In those pre-smartphone, pre-social media days, news — even the world-shaking variety — travelled at a glacial pace. It took a full hour from the time James Earl Ray’s finger pulled the trigger on his Remington Model 760 rifle until the TV networks aired the first bulletins on the shooting, acc’d’g to the New York Times. In the documentary, King: Montgomery to Memphis, the producer of a show in New York takes to the stage, interrupting the proceedings, to announce that King had died. The audience gasps. New York plays and concerts begin at 8:00pm, Eastern Time. The show in question was just about to begin when the producer broke the news.

I couldn’t possibly have heard the news until it was dark in Chicago. I recall it still being light out when I saw the picture of King and heard the funereal music. So it must have been the next early evening, or even late afternoon, that I had my epiphany. Perhaps that’s why I was alone in the living room. My mother would have been cooking Friday night dinner. It was still Lent — Easter was nine days away — so she’d have been frying fish. My father probably wasn’t home from work yet. My brother, as noted above, was away at college.

I’d come home from school with a sky full of smoke overhead and the blare of sirens near and far, a continuous cacophony. The riots had begun already. Even though the West Side black neighborhoods that were blazing, on Madison St. and Roosevelt Rd. from Cicero to Western avenues, were miles away, the acrid stench of the fires pierced my nostrils. My mother wouldn’t have let me go outside to play after school that afternoon. Our neighborhood might be overrun by hordes of enraged black men. Some neighbors sat on their front stoops cradling pistols and shotguns, waiting for the assault to begin. It never came.

As I understand things, a lot of white people to this day are still waiting, their guns at the ready.

When my father did come home from work — he was the shipping and receiving manager for a box company deep in the South Side black ghetto — he told my mother he’d had to turn his lights on as he travelled northbound on the Dan Ryan Expressway and then westbound on the Ike. The blacks, he explained, were going to stop cars that didn’t have their lights on in remembrance of King and beat the offending drivers. Whether that fear was warranted or not, I can’t say. I can’t find any mentions of such actions in the newspaper accounts of the those days. But in my neighborhood, any crazy rumor about black men turning violent was taken as gospel.

As the years progressed, both my parents’ attitudes toward Black America hardened, this despite my family’s refusal to honor the school boycotts following the announcements of busing and integration plans. Our house was splattered with eggs after my mother had refused to sign a petition against busing. But when my sister’s family broke up and it was learned she’d taken up with a black man, the racial amity that my mother preached at the dinner table and my father seemed to endorse by his silence would never be spoken of again.

But, at the age of 12, finding myself keening over the death of Martin Luther King, my own attitude toward black human beings began to race in the opposite direction.

Years later — decades later — my mother’s feelings toward black people softened. I don’t believe she died with the stain of hatred on her heart. My father? To the day he died, he maintained that Martin Luther King, Jr. was “a troublemaker.”

Funny thing is, in retrospect, I agree with him. Only my definition of troublemaker isn’t the same as my father’s.

 

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