April 4, 1968. I was watching TV that Thursday night when a bulletin flashed across the screen. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead, shot dead in Memphis. By the time I woke up the next morning to deliver papers, cities were on fire across the land. The all-news radio station kept replaying part of a speech Kwami Toure (then still Stokely Carmichael) had given the night before in Washington, DC. The part they played emphasized that King’s murder proved that nonviolence didn’t work. I was beginning to think he was right. As I delivered the Washington Post, I tried to make some sense of the storm. Black Major League Baseball players (and those who agreed with them) were talking about boycotting Opening Day unless MLB postponed that date until after King’s funeral. At school, my social studies teacher, a young guy who was teaching us about Karl Marx, said a few words over the public address system about the senseless and tragic murder. The black kids seemed distant and some of the more racist white kids (those who wore their Wallace for President buttons to school), gleeful. I just wished there was something I could do.
In church that Sunday, the priest read a letter from the archbishop expressing sorrow at the assassination and the violent response it had wrought. His letter urged each and every one of us to pray and, additionally, contribute food and clothing to those who had been left homeless as a result of the revolt in the cities. My mother and I volunteered to join in a door-to-door collection campaign.
That Sunday afternoon we began. Mom waited in the car while a friend and I knocked on doors asking for a can or two of food. Everyone who was home offered something even if it was just a can of peas. As we drove around our suburban one-hundred-percent white burb, we could see plumes of smoke to our south and north; Washington, DC and Baltimore, respectively. By the time we had covered about half of our neighborhood, the station wagon was more than half full. My teenage faith in humanity was restored.
Then I knocked on the next door. This house belonged to a man whose daughter sat next to me in English class. He owned a construction business and had always been nice to me. I knocked again His daughter came to the door. She said hi. I answered in kind and told her my purpose. She headed to the kitchen for some canned goods. On her way back with a couple cans, her dad came into the front room. He nodded hello and asked me what I was up to. Collecting food for the people made homeless by the riots, I replied. His daughter proceeded to drop the cans she held into the bag I was carrying. I thanked her and turned around to leave.
“Wait a goddam minute!” yelled her dad. I turned around in shock.
“Yes sir?” I questioned.
“None of my food is going to them niggers,” he continued yelling. “Let ’em all die.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. This man was a Catholic like me. He believed in Jesus and Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself. But sir, I began. Give me back my food and get out of here, you niggerlover, he shouted. And stay away from my daughter. His daughter had already left the room in tears. I left shaking, not believing what had happened. The New Testament parable about the Pharisees and hypocrites took on a new meaning.
A couple months later, Bobby Kennedy was dead too. He’d been my choice for president. The funeral was on television and the train came through our town. I wanted to go down to the track to pay my respects, but was afraid to ask my dad. He had never expressed much liking for the Kennedys and Bobby was probably his least favorite, although thirty years later he said he probably would have voted for him. My mom, on the other hand, was enthralled by the family. We settled for watching the proceedings on TV.
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch‘s new collection on music, art and sex: Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.