By Vernon A. Williams, Gary Crusader
On the evening of April 4, 1968, I was at the YMCA on 5th Avenue and Adams Street in Gary, playing basketball. I remember catching the bus and walking home from Broadway to 22nd and Madison Street on this chillier than normal night.
I barely had time to take my jacket off before the phone rang. It was Gary Roosevelt High School friend Lieutenant Dodson. No, he was not in the military at the age of 17. That was his real name.
In an uncharacteristically cryptic tone, Lieutenant said, “Well, they shot your man.” He knew I would not understand so without prompting, explained, “Doctor King was shot and killed tonight in Memphis.”
First deafening silence. If we had any more conversation at all, it was brief and inconsequential. I was struggling to compute the magnitude of this devastating revelation. It was a challenge to digest that the world’s icon of non-violence had met such a brutal demise.
It cut like a knife. Though frequently resentful of this nation’s myriad transgressions and failings, in my adolescent mind there was always a sense of possibilities for a better America. For the first time, anger and disillusionment from contemplating the unthinkable erased all such sense of hope.
Not in Gary – where the first Black mayor was sworn in only a few months earlier – but across the nation, those who shared my bitter outrage and utter despair set America on fire. Dr. King had earlier said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
Black America never felt less heard than on the night of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., inarguably our most profound, articulate, uncompromising, courageous, high profile, and virtuous leader.
Angry and anxious to lash out, I vicariously tossed the Molotov cock-tails exploding in the ghetto, overturned and torched police cars, rebelling against anything that rep- resented authority in a society that seemed so willing to accept the disenfranchisement of people of color.
I remember the day after Dr. King was shot and killed. I had to drive to Chicago. It was late afternoon around 76th and State Street when I saw a white priest walking along a desolate block, followed by three or four Black teenagers taunting him. He managed to enter a building, just seconds before a whirling two by four piece of wood hurled at his head by one of the angry youths barely missed.
I remember feeling relieved that he made it in unharmed; thinking to myself that this clergyman was not the source of their ire. But I understood their confusion.
Social commentators and everyday people decried the riots saying, “Why are they destroying their own neighborhoods?” That ignorance presupposes that these impoverished citizens had actual ownership of these urban colonies. That was a lie.
The hood was more battleground than home.
In retrospect, only in the strictest sense was King’s death the cause of the riots. In cities across the United States, frustrations had been building for years. De facto segregation, workplace discrimination, police brutality, high crime rates, low health care, education woes and immense poverty were inescapable realities of these urban plantations.
By the end of the 1960s, ghettos around the country were tinderboxes, going off at the slightest provocation. Dr. King’s assassination was the greatest provocation of all.
In the week that followed his death, there were riots in 125 cities. When the smoke cleared, there were reports of 40 deaths, 2,600 injuries, 21,000 arrests and an estimated $65 million in property damages. To put it into perspective – accounting for inflation, that amount is approximately $385 million in 2018.
Some social scientists and political pundits anxiously tout how far African Americans have advanced since the death of Dr. King. Others submit with frustration that the status quo has resulted in little or no meaningful gains in the overall status of Black America. Some lament that not only has progress been illusive, people of color are considerably worse off today.
From the most optimistic to most cynical, no one can proclaim that this nation has risen to what Dr. King called “the true meaning of its creed … that all men are created equal.” However inspiring his final “Mountaintop” speech, no intellectually honest observer can suggest that Black Americans have reached “the promised land.”
While it is difficult to resist conjecture on what could have been, Black Americans should instead face what is. Rather than wallow in the mire of possibilities, wondering what Dr. King might have done, focus on what Dr. King would have us do, to honor his legacy.
Advocate fearlessly. Strive for individual and collective excellence. Build relationships rather than walls. Celebrate differences. Debate without rancor. Lift as we rise. Forgive one another and ourselves. Love the Lord. Organize and form strategies. Get involved. Vote. Hold those in power accountable. Pray.
We shall overcome, someday.
CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society.Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].