Most of my earliest memories are from around the time I was five or six years old. I remember the first day of kindergarten; I remember my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Leatherwood (and don’t you dare make fun of her name like my older brothers and sisters did; she was awesome); and I remember the goldfish pond in her classroom. Yes, she had a goldfish pond in her classroom. So suck it, haters.
I also remember certain events surrounding the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which happened forty-five years ago today. I was five, going on six at the time. I remember my parents shooing us outdoors so they could listen to the radio or watch news coverage on the ancient black-and-white television set in the living room. I remember them talking in hushed tones, being deadly serious all the time; a kind of palpable tension that lasted for several days. And I remember driving down what’s now the Eisenhower Expressway towards the Loop, seeing buildings burning on the West Side.
So, yeah, here’s the thing: One of my earliest childhood memories was an act of domestic terrorism. Dr. King’s assassination wasn’t just a murder and it wasn’t just a political assassination. And it wasn’t just a racial killing, although race, obviously, was a huge part of it. It was all those things, but it also was an act of terrorism, plain and simple. James Earl Ray didn’t kill Martin Luther King just to kill him; I think Ray killed King to shut him up. I think Ray killed King to put an end to King’s dream, his movement, his ideas.
And I think he killed King to instill fear – terror – in the people who supported King and who believed in civil rights, open housing, and integrated schools. And who supported the rights of workers, and who wanted to put an end to the Vietnam war, and who just, in general, wanted a better, more progressive world for their kids. He wanted to make everyone who worked for social justice flinch; to look over his or her shoulder every so often; to wonder if that funny feeling on the back of the neck might be the business end of a high powered scope.
That’s what terrorist do. Far more than killing individuals, they use killing to make you think twice about pursuing your political and social aims.
So, that was a shitty thing to be exposed to at the age of five-going-on-six.
I didn’t realize until recently, however, that April 4 is significant for another reason. Because on April 4, 1913 – that’d be an even century ago – the legendary McKinley Morganfield was born. Better known as Muddy Waters, he was the undisputed king of Chicago blues, and he had this musical presence in our city unlike anybody else. I’ve waxed poetic about Muddy Waters before, but, really, you can’t underestimate what he meant to the city of Chicago, to rock ’n roll music, and to a skinny, longhaired white kid from the suburbs who first heard his older brother play the shit out of a Muddy Waters song on a 1963 Les Paul and said, Wait, what the fuck was that? Because that the greatest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.
What? I was skinny once. And my brother could play the shit out of that goddamn guitar.
Anyway, say what you will about America, no other place on earth could have given us both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Muddy Waters. That’s what this country does to you: It makes you love it, and it breaks your fucking heart.
[Cross-posted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles]