What It Was Like in NY when MLK Died


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April 11, 1968, Vol. XIII, No. 26

A Happy Wake Ends in Tears
by Michael C. D. Macdonald

I was in Madison Square Garden at the Stanley Cup Playoffs when I first heard the news. With the Rangers comfortably ahead, 2-0, I turned on my transistor and heard that Dr. King had been shot in Memphis. Around me in the balcony, the fans were roaring at a Ranger power play and through the noise it sounded as if Dr. King had “only” been “seriously” but not “critically” wounded. Whether it was shock or cupidity (I’d paid a scalper $10 for the ticket), I turned the radio off, willing to accept what I wanted to believe. I did, however, tell the high school kid next to me what had happened. “Oh yeah? I wish they’d killed him,” he replied matter-of-factly. The kid was friendly enough, and later, by feeding me all sorts of hockey lore, was obviously trying to make up for what he said. But he had spoken and I wonder how many other “nice” white people had instinctively said or thought the same thing.

In a political sense, I myself had called King “dead” after last summer, although the Poor People’s March had caught my feelings and I had thought about going to Memphis when Dr. King led his parade the next Monday. By the time this article appears, I, too, will be trying to make up for what I said by doing something, by marching in Memphis. But it is too late in one sense, although early in another. In a world intent on “doing its thing” — whether it be destroying a city to save a country (LBJ in Vietnam or SNCC in its rhetoric), whether it be wearing beads and long hair, or African clothes and natural hair, whether it be the empty rhetoric of the New Left or Bobby Kennedy, only one great man stayed consistent to the end, radical to the end, himself to the end, as his spirit left his body in Memphis. He is dead now, but after the destructive agony of this weekend has quieted down, I suspect that in his death he breathed new and permanent life into a cause for which he had lived every moment.

But that is for later. As I said, I snapped off my radio and enjoyed the game, and then, at 10.05, as I was heading towards Eighth Avenue along 33rd Street, I switched the news on and WINS was talking about King in the past tense. I wandered listlessly up Eighth Avenue not knowing what to do, whom to call. At the Port Authority I saw some high-coiffed hookers and their flashy pimps screaming and laughing at a black man hitting a white man across the way. After a cop had arrested the Negro, they yelled, “That’s all right, brother! You hit on that whitey — it’s only the beginning” and they laughed with all the joy of someone filled with rage and despair. In the film “The Battle of Algiers,” the pimps and pushers are the first to be purged in building the revolution, but the death of Dr. King had upset all the equations for black America.

As for the Black Left, they were on hand the next afternoon at the bandshell on the Central Park Mall. The audience was mainly white and young, the bandshell was mostly young and thoroughly black, save for the press and an annoying New Leftists who threw out Spring Mobilization buttons to the mob, at one point prompting chairwoman Lydia Williams to scold: “Look at you stoopin’ and scramblin’ for those buttons. Ain’t you ever goin to learn!” Miss Williams is of the Freedom and Peace Party, which is of the Communist Party, which is of the FBI, but nevertheless she combined a fine mixture of honesty, scorn, and humor — the last very necessary for the feelings everyone had. The speakers varied, from Jarvis Tyner of the DuBois clubs with his Italian shades and trim suit, to withered Sister Salvation, but the tone was angry and the white audience patiently cheered on the assault. Dr. Spock got a fair introduction from Miss Williams, who quieted the noise down around the bandshell by saying, “He’s one white man who digs us. Now there are plenty of white mothers around for you to take it out on elsewhere…you know they ain’t all here, thats’ for sure!” Spock was mercifully brief, and of the other speakers only Ossie Davis and an unidentified young man were to the point. Davis came on strong but wound up speaking non-violence. He told of how Malcolm X had visited King in Selma just two weeks before Malcolm’s assassination. Malcom had told King that, despite their differences, they were brothers, and now Davis told of how King had visited LeRoi Jones in Newark and told him the same thing. It had been two weeks ago, Davis added. After Davis, the young man put it simply: “I was born a nigger and a spic and I know the pain…I am sick and tired of marching but I’m marching in the Poor People’s campaign — if we all vote in a massive registration drive, we can be the strongest ’cause we are caged in the ghettos…we were going to march, and we are going to march, and Dr. King is our leader — he will live with me forever. I hope that you also will help to keep him alive.”

…The speeches were long and many, but the sun had come out by 2 o’clock, and when an impromptu march of the 3000 spectators started, all joined in. Fears of a march to City Hall without marshals were soon dispelled by the fact that the cops (chastened by their Yip-In rough stuff?) were content to let the marchers take up Broadway. As at the bandshell, people saved their tears for later and the march was a happy wake…

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