04 April 2018

Returning to April 4, 1968

I remember this broadcast, especially the statement by Lyndon Johnson.

One of my most vivid memories of April 4, 1968, still with me after fifty years, was listening to U.S. president Lyndon Johnson's statement that evening concerning the assassination of Martin Luther King. I especially remember flinching with irritation when Johnson said, "I ask every citizen to reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King., who lived by nonviolence." Even at age fifteen I disliked the utilitarian salute to nonviolence, a salute that seemed to be intended to keep things peaceful on city streets rather than paying actual tribute to the values of nonviolent resistance.

All of this took place on my younger sister's fourth birthday.

I recounted more memories from that difficult evening and the days that followed back in this earlier blog post, entitled "April 4, 1968." (Text below; original here, with Jeremy Mott's comments.)

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 anatomical 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.

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 on the first day of 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.

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.

Excerpt from Agronsky's interview on NBC.
During my years of teaching in Russia, Dr. King provided powerful lessons that were part of my vision for what I could do in the classroom:
  • His English usage and rhetoric showed how language could be mobilized to serve moral values.
  • The way he embedded the Bible into his speeches and conversations helped demonstrate the influence of the English-language Bible in public life. One of my class handouts was a biblically-annotated version of the "I have a dream" speech; another was a listing of significant phrases from this transcript of Martin Agronsky's interview of Dr. King not long after the Montgomery bus boycott.
  • He was a young man, not much older than my students, when he began changing the course of history.
  • Everything about him was a powerful refutation of racist stereotypes that are as pervasive in Russia as they are in the USA, and less frequently challenged.
  • Above all, he demonstrated how faith and civic engagement could serve each other. (My principle in the classroom was never to make tendentious comparisons between the USA and Russia, but provide tools for students to consider for themselves whether to use, or not.)
During my Ferguson Fellowship year at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, I drew upon Dr. King's sermons against the war in Viet Nam as part of my materials showing how evangelism and the Friends testimonies were interrelated. Excerpts are here.

And here's a link to David Finke's tribute to "the Doc," referencing nonviolence in its full perspective, a perspective that the U.S. president was not free to acknowledge on that bleak evening.

Four historians consider the response of white evangelicals to the U.S. civil rights movement.

Adria Gulizia: Is Jesus a nazi sympathizer?

The first official annual sessions of Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends.

Mike Farley's strange Easter and the sowing of seeds.

The BBC's religion editor, Martin Bashir: there is no mastery of mystery.

Telegram's presence on the Russian Internet may be diminished, but this BBC article (Russian) suggests ways to keep using it.

More on #metoo in Russia; the story of Darya Komarova.

On the shooting of Palestinians: indifference may be worse than pulling the trigger.

No video this week. I'm repeating the track from the original 2012 post, one of Otis Spann's tributes to Martin Luther King.


David H. Finke said...

I am honored that you have shared my comments on this poignant subject, that I made 20 years ago. Thanks for having asked me to have the remarks printed in Quaker Life. I'm glad that there is an archive that we can use!

Johan Maurer said...

I'm grateful for the Internet Archive as well! For some reason, I didn't keep copies of the articles I wrote for the magazine, assuming foolishly that Quaker Life's own online archives would be there forever....