As most of us know, tomorrow marks forty years since Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. Over the next few days, CNN, the History Channel, local news stations, NPR and PBS will undoubtedly broadcast documentaries and provide analyses of the meaning of Dr. King’s life and death and what the giving of his life has meant for America, for African America, and for race relations. Most will undoubtedly concentrate on MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech as if it’s the only one that he ever delivered or the only one that Whites have ever heard. Some may go further by taking an in-depth look at the folk or folks who coolly planned Dr. King’s murder and whether James Earl Ray was the only person involved.
Most will not, however, be able or willing to capture the way Dr. King was in his last three years on this earth and in this country. As I discussed on my blog last week, MLK took a number of stances in his final, post-Civil Rights Act of ’64 and Voting Right Act of ’65 years that infuriated the powers that were, particularly LBJ (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) and J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI. But they weren’t the only ones who shunned Dr. King in those last thousand days or so of his life. Many White liberals and many Black civil rights leaders also turned away from MLK. His view that America was involved in an evil and imperialist war in Vietnam made many leaders of the ’60s liberal establishment squirm. His willingness to address de facto segregation in Chicago in ’66 didn’t exactly sit well with southern Black leaders or so-called Black militants either. King’s decision to fight for the economic rights of working-class Blacks (and Whites, by the way) in Memphis and in other parts of the country made him many more enemies than friends.
It’s amazing how quickly a people can forget their own history. I’m talking about all Americans. This was who MLK was. He was someone whose agenda for civil rights expanded into other forms of social justice, into international human rights and issues involving the peace and security of this country and the world at large. To only think about Dr. King as the man who delivered one of the great speeches of the modern era belies the fact that he made many great speeches about our world, our national ills and the human condition. But as with many a great death, people tend to emphasize what they are most comfortable with about that person’s life — they seldom think about what the person would want others to remember about them.
We’ve also forgotten the context of MLK’s death on April 4th of ’68. Within a week or so of the assassination, the Johnson Administration has released the Kerner Commission, the one that declared that America was “two nations — one white, one black, separate and unequal.” With the Tet Offensive, the failure (at least in the eyes of White conservatives) of the Great Society and other issues, LBJ appeared on TV at the end of March to say “I will not seek, nor will I accept” the Democratic nomination for President for a second term. Of course, race riots had occurred in cities such as Newark, New Jersey, Detroit and Cleveland in the summer before.
So with Ray’s firing of a high-powered rifle with a target scope into the body of MLK came also a massive set of race riots across the country. From Washington, DC to Pittsburgh and several dozen other cities came an outpouring of rage that we only usually see in other parts of the world these days. The response in the next few years was the one that allows most Americans to feel good about MLK and his legacy — employers and foundations took seriously the need for inclusion and diversity, hiring Blacks into white collar positions, providing funds to organizations to ameliorate the worst effects of poverty, discrimination and the riots of ’68. And universities began to practice affirmative action far more seriously than before.
Of course, neocons across the racial divide united in the mid-70s and began to chop away at these efforts. But in some ways, that takes away from the main point. Which is to remember that Dr. King’s sacrifice pulled America kicking and screaming into a world where it could no longer hide its ills and problems around race. We don’t talk about it publicly, and we don’t like to hear others asking us to talk about it, but issues around race and poverty and a multitude of other issues are there for the world to see and discuss, even if we won’t.
One other note. This week also marks something particularly special for me. Fourteen years ago this week, I took my first flight ever outside of the Eastern Time zone. I was on my way to my first major conference, the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Since my flight there had a stopover in Houston, I took full advantage of that and found a day and a half to spend with my mother’s side of the family, my Gill side. I was twenty-four years old, and other than my Uncle Sam, I had never met any of my relatives on my mother’s side. If I had stayed in New York for college, I may have been able to meet my Uncle’s Hobart or Paul, since they were in the area in ’88 during my fall semester at Pitt. Still, I didn’t think much of this gathering, at least at first.
My Uncle George picked me up at the airport, all smiling and happy to see me, saying, “I should of recognized you from that Gill nose of yours.” We drove from the airport and through what seemed like three Houston downtowns before reached a basketball court in the Third Ward. I missed three shots (they all rimmed out) before my uncle told me to sit down. Oh well. He obviously played almost every day, as he kept making shot after shot. Of course, it was a hot day to me for April 2 (seventy-eight degrees), and coming from Pittsburgh on a six am flight, I just wanted to eat and take a nap. After about an hour, we finally left and went to his place.
I eventually met my Uncles Robert, Hobart, and one other one in addition to Uncle George (my mother has nine brothers and two sisters, plus her late half-brother Charles), an aunt-in-law and a few cousins. Because of the size of the Gill family, two of my uncles were only four and six years older than me. My cousins (Uncle Robert’s kids) were sixteen and eight, making me more like an uncle than a first cousin. My Uncle George insisted, “Don’t call me ‘Uncle’ — you’re almost as old as me!” We had dinner, watched the NCAA Men’s Tournament (Arkansas won that year), talked about why my Knicks would lose to the Rockets in the NBA Finals (which actually happened two months later – Uncle George called me to gloat), and talked about how much money they thought us folk in New York walked around with.
We were at Uncle Robert’s house. Given the poverty that the Gill’s had grown up in as tenant farmers in Bradley, Arkansas, Uncle Robert had done really well. His was a modest two-story standard suburban house of off-white and sandy tan hues, with a two-car garage and driveway. He owned four cars and had a small boat that obviously needed work. Besides that and the telephone bill that he had refuse to pay for the previous four years, it was a real family with normal family dynamics. I could tell that the uncles hung out with each other a lot, and that despite the phone issue, that Uncle Robert and his wife got along. I was relieved to see that my relatives on my mother’s side were doing pretty well.
They asked lots of questions about my accent, my schooling, why I needed a doctorate, how expensive living in New York is, why I hadn’t made it down to visit them before. I answered their questions, but I don’t think they understood. I said that we were poor, but the figures I gave my uncles made them think that I was lying. What I should’ve done was tell them about the abusive husbands and the fall into welfare, but I didn’t. Those times were as far away from me at that moment as the other side of the universe. I was happy to have met them, glad to see them doing so well in their lives, with steady jobs as truck drivers or plant supervisors. But I also had little in common with them besides the love of basketball. It wasn’t like I could easily explain my earning a doctorate in history in order to teach at a college. I tried, but I don’t think that they fully understood why someone as young as me would’ve chosen to stay in school an extra five or six years for the degree. They left me alone, though, when I explained that they were a lot of attractive women in graduate school too.
I spent the next day pretty much laying around, watching basketball, hanging out with the uncles and explaining bits and pieces of life in Mount Vernon and my lack of dates in recent months at Carnegie Mellon. They spent a lot of time ribbing me about my uninteresting love life, then began to discuss their experiences, conquests and hurts. Ultimately, my Uncle George seemed ready to settle down, while another uncle seemed conflicted about marriage.
On the drive to the airport and to say goodbye, I realized that Houston would’ve been the more logical choice for my mother to move to in the summer of ’66. It was big, Southern, Texas, but not big like New York is and certainly much closer to family. If she had done so, would I have been born, and if so, would I have been as driven to be the writer and educator I am today? I don’t know. What I do know is that my mother would’ve been happier and more welcome in a world that would’ve been as familiar to her as her own experiences growing up in Bradley. Most of her family had moved there, and would’ve been a good support system.
In the end, I was glad to have finally met them. I just hope that I don’t let another twenty-four years go by before I visit them again.