Hot Air: A Better Day?

It was an unusually warm early spring day, that Thursday, 51 years ago.

When the news hit that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed, I ‘d already begun gaining awareness of the outside world. I’d just turned 12 precisely a month before. Politics, the nation, the world, Vietnam, civil rights, women’s lib, unrest here and around the globe, Mayor Daley, President Johnson — they all held me rapt. I’d even written an essay for my elementary school newspaper, the Lovett Lantern, earlier that school year, explicating how I, putatively named the next president’s Secretary of State, might strive to solve the world’s problems. Those solutions seemed so logical, so achievable to me, a bright, cocksure pre-teen. Perhaps my favorite preamble line in those days: All we have to do is….

The following likely illustrates the overarching atmosphere in this holy land at the time — upon hearing the news that King was dead, I wasn’t at all surprised. In fact, if there were any wonder at all it would have been in thinking How did he survive this long?

Somehow I knew someone would get to King. Growing up in the neighborhood I did, it was clear there’d been an almost palpable desire on the part of the citizenry that some hero would come along and put the nation’s preeminent freedom fighter out of white America’s misery.

My first instinct was to suspect the FBI had pulled the trigger. The truth is The Man, in the person of J. Edgar Hoover or George Wallace or Strom Thurmond or any of a million other powerful whites needn’t have squeezed that trigger or even held the rifle steady for the shooter. For after some punk-assed loser had fired a round into King’s jaw and neck on that motel balcony in Memphis, all The Men and all The Little Guys in my neighborhood rose as one as if to cheer their team winning the World Series.

There was no need for conspiracy. Out of a then-American population of 200 million, surely there’d be enough lone wolves, “hellhounds” (as aptly described by author Hampton Sides in his history of the assassination), to ensure that King would not trouble white America into the 1970s. Who knows how many moral runts like James Earl Ray trailed King through his final years, his final days? Only one’d be enough to get that clear shot, that killshot. And Ray got it.

Even more disturbing, who knows how many wealthy segregationists — oilmen, football team owners, industrial scions, et cetera — shelled out dough to Ray and countless other wretches, for whom a rich man’s pocket change was a veritable fortune, so as to keep them fed, roomed, gassed up, and pumped up as they followed King around the country, waiting, waiting, waiting for that perfect moment.

The next day, Friday, even more warm and oppressive, my city exploded. My family didn’t live terribly far from the West Side that had begun going up in flames in the morning. The sun was hazed over by the smoke from the fires wafting overhead. The sounds of sirens and helicopters cut through the miasma throughout the day, into the evening, and until a terrifying midnight storm, like the wrath of god, descended upon the city, cooling things down, if temporarily.

We don’t need to have freedom fighters gunned down anymore. We simply gaslight them into irrelevance.

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