Of memory and forgetting

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by Rich Broderick, 4/7/08 • I’ve been reluctant to write anything in response to the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Reluctant because every writer in the country seemed compelled Friday to pen something and I hate feeling like part of the pack. Reluctant, too, because “I remember exactly what I was doing” memoirs tend to be more about the person remembering than the person being commemorated. Nonetheless I’m forging ahead anyway, albeit a little late – a sure sign of ambivalence – because I do remember the events of that day very clearly and because what happened to me later that terrible evening was not entirely disassociated from the ugliness and hatred that shattered King’s life.

At the time I was blessedly nearing the end of my freshman year at a small college in the Tidewater region of North Carolina. I say blessedly because there have been few times when I have been more miserable and few places that contributed more directly to my unhappiness. One of only a handful of Northerners enrolled at the school, I was never allowed to forget my outsider status, targeted for insults and catcalls hurled by the local rednecks who somehow knew by some instinct that I was not one of them. “Faggot” was one of their milder terms. “Go back where you came from, nigger lover,” another frequent imprecation.

Since misery loves company I found myself associating with the handful of other Yankees at the school along with a small number of Southern students who’d rebelled against the prevailing cultural norm and become as marginalized as I. Two of them, Costas Lampras, a Greek-American kid from Fayetteville, and Chris Baker, an art student, were my best friends that year.

I was getting ready to go out and meet Costas at Chris’s apartment when I heard the news. I was on the second story of an old Victorian house whose top floor had been converted into a rooming house for students when the owner of the house – a professor from the school of a liberal bent – ran up the stairs calling out hysterically, “He’s been shot! He’s been shot!” It took a few moments for him to catch his breath and blurt out that Martin Luther King had been assassinated only moments before in Memphis.

There was a brief hubbub at the top of the stairs. But by then, 1968 was already an annus terriblis and I was less shocked than I might have been a few years earlier – or later. King’s advocacy of non-violent civil disobedience seemed superseded in an era rapidly slouching toward Bethlehem. Over in Southeast Asia, the U.S. was busy defoliating Vietnam and slaughtering Vietnamese peasants by the tens of thousands every month – and wasting thousands of American lives in the process. Back home, the Civil Rights Movement had given way to the far more exiguous Black Power Movement and the Panthers, while the SDS had devolved from the idealism of the Port Huron Statement into a conspiratorial movement that spawned, on the one hand, the likes of rank opportunists like Norm Coleman and, on the other, the crazies of the Weather Underground. I remember in the moment that my most immediate concern was that my landlord was going to stroke out over the news.

Once that crisis passed, I headed on over for my appointed rendezvous with my friends. The three of us hung out together for a couple of hours, listening to music. Some of our talk touched upon what had happened earlier that day. By the time Costas and I left, it was dark outside. Unbeknownst to us, news of King’s assassination had triggered disturbances in what the local white folk fondly referred to as “Niggertown.” Costas and I were halfway to my house when, on an empty downtown side street, a squad car pulled up opposite and its driver yelled something we couldn’t decipher. When the deputy – a short, broad-shouldered guy with a military strut – got out of the car and began to cross to us, his carefully choreographed progress was briefly interrupted by a pickup truck coming the other way. Witnessing the disruption of his macho act, I turned to Costas and muttered, “Uh-oh.”

I was right to be concerned.

The deputy hitched up his heavily laden service belt and came over to us. “I said, You two boys lookin’ for trouble?” he drawled.

By now, he’d been joined by three other deputies – each of them as outsized as the first deputy was runty, and all armed with short-barreled shotguns — who’d climbed out of the car and come over and surrounded the two of us. Costas and I said, No, sir, we’re not looking for trouble. No way.

I think we might have gotten out of there without much ado except that when Costas gave his name the first deputy assumed that Costas was toying with him. Then when Costas hesitated in giving his address – he was in the process of moving that very day – the short deputy snarled, “That’s it. Take ‘em in!” On the way back to the squad car, one of the big deputies shoved Costas in the back with the butt of a sawed-off shotgun. To my horror, Costas turned and half-shoved, half-swung at the guy. I held my breath a long moment, fully expecting that the next and last sound I heard would be the blast of a firearm, but, mercifully, the scuffle did not escalate and we were hustled off to the city jail.

There we spent the night in a filthy cell, wondering what exactly would become of us. One of the more disquieting things about that long vigil was the fact that we’d never been booked, meaning there was no official record of our even being there. Meaning…well, I tried not to think too much about the possible implications.

Next morning, my landlord came and bailed us out – when he learned that I hadn’t shown up, he’d come looking – and we were released. Nothing much happened to us. We were charged with resisting arrest, but a local lawyer, who chuckled to himself about our “Beatles haircuts” (which neither of us, in fact, wore, but it was the closest cultural reference he could think of to insult us with) got that knocked down to disorderly conduct and we were let off with a small fine. Others were not so lucky. Several black residents of the city were shot dead that night, hundreds more arrested and charged with much more serious crimes, while the editor and photographer of the student newspaper – who’d been thrown into the cell next to ours – were charged with arson. It was a preposterous, trumped up charge, but last I heard they were on their way to court and a possible sentence on one of the state’s notorious chain gangs. As for me, at the end of the year, I transferred the hell out of there and never looked back.

All in all, my night in jail was only the tiniest glimpse of the dragon’s teeth of rage, fear, grief, violence and official retaliation that consumed American cities that night, but it was enough to leave a lasting impression. In the 40 years since King was martyred, the violence and chaos of 1968 has faded from view while the gross social and economic injustices that simultaneously set America aflame and hurled us headlong into the hell that was the Vietnam War have slipped a little beneath the national radar screen.

But neither the violence nor the causes of the violence have been eradicated, let alone definitively addressed. Progress has been made, yes. No one would deny that. But as our burgeoning prison population, our occupation of Iraq, our growing armies of the drug-addled and the suicidally depressed, our wanton destruction of the environment, our ongoing complicity in the politicide of the Palestinians, our ham-fisted efforts to overthrow Latin American governments deemed too independent for our taste demonstrate, we still have a long way to go. And as the manufactured outrage over Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s jeremiads also demonstrates we are far from winning what Milan Kundera called the struggle between memory and forgetting.

At the end of his life, King was not simply promoting civil rights for Black Americans. He was in full prophetic mode, crying out against the injustices at home caused by race and class as well as against the violence and injustice America wreaks abroad. He had in his sights the full array of consequences stemming from our genocidal history, our unexamined sense of entitlement, our reckless determination to adopt as a society the corporate ethos of internalized profits and externalized costs that is behind the outsourcing of the true environmental, economic, political, and military costs of our lifestyle to the world’s poorest nations.

It was for this reason that King, like Jeremiah and Jesus and other prophets before him, had to die. And it is for this reason that, regardless of who actually pulled the trigger, he was struck down by American society as a whole, not by any single individual. As Dostoyevsky wrote: Only a few are guilty; all are responsible. It’s critical now that we not lose sight of the fact that while Martin Luther King may have been murdered on a motel balcony in 1968, the work for justice and for peace that cost him his life did not die with him. As it is for every generation, that work is always waiting to be taken up by us and for those who come after us.

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