|Martin Luther King lays on the balcony of Memphis's Lorraine Motel moments after he was shot as aids point to where they believe the shot that killed him was fired.|
Except for the month of April, this blog is generally in the business of history. But in this month dedicated to poetry, things that matter can get short shrift. Take today. It is the anniversary of a gut-wrenching occasion that left a scar on the nation and on many of our hearts.
It was on April 4, 1968 that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down as he stood on the balcony of a Memphis motel. He was in the city to complete some unfinished business—a march in support of striking garbage collectors, a follow up to an earlier march where violence had broken out as younger marchers began smashing shop windows. He returned against the unanimous advice of his closest associates. But he felt he had a duty to complete the march in peace.
|On the eve of his assassination Dr. King delivered his eerily prescient final speech to a packed church.|
The rainy night before, Dr. King went to a local church that was packed to the rafters to hear him. It was there that to a strangely hushed crowd he delivered his own elegy:
… I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
The night of the killing riots erupted around the nation. Black rage boiled on to the streets. In Chicago the West Side burned. White America cowered in front of their television sets in fear and horror.
At tiny Shimer College, I locked myself in a closet and cried for what seemed like hours.
We’ll leave it to the pathetic conspiracy theorists to argue about who to pin the rap on. It really doesn’t matter if we know the name attached to the finger on the trigger, or the names of who may have paid or abetted, or even of those who just winked. A festering boil of racism killed Dr. King in the forlorn hope that they could kill his dream and the march to justice.
Traumatic events like this are often processed through poetry. Think of Walt Whitman’s elegies to fallen Lincoln—O Captain, My Captain and When Lilacs Last in the Door Yard Bloomed.
Today, let’s remember through the eyes of two Black women.
Nordette Adams grew up in New Orleans. After a varied career as a journalist, government public relations person, ghost writer, technical writer, and writer and producer of documentaries she is concentrating on her creative writing and poetry.
Remembering A Life
I remember him in the misted vision of toddler years
and again in girlhood, the booming voice on TV,
someone grown-ups talked about, eyelids flapped wide.
Elders huddled ’round the screen enraptured,
in fear for him, in awe.
I remember him.
His words swept the land, singing our passion.
Dogs growled in streets. Men in sheets.
Police battering my people. (Water, a weapon.)
Yet my people would rejoice ... And mourn.
I remember him, a fearsome warrior crying peace,
a man—blemished by clay, the stain of sin as
any other, calling on the Rock—
Death's sickle on his coat tails,
yet he spied glory.
Shall we walk again and remember him,
not as the Madison Aveners do,
but in solitude and hope
with acts of courage and compassion,
with lives of greater scope
carving fresh paths of righteousness?
© Copyright January 2004, Nordette Adams
June Jordan was born in Harlem in 1936 and grew up in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, Poet, activist, teacher, and essayist, she was a prolific, passionate and influential voice for liberation. Jordan died in 2002 but lived and wrote on the frontlines of American poetry with political vision and moral clarity.
In Memorium: Martin Luther King Jr.
honey people murder mercy U.S.A.
the milkland turn to monsters teach
to kill to violate pull down destroy
the weakly freedom growing fruit
from being born
tomorrow yesterday rip rape
exacerbate despoil disfigure
crazy running threat the
appall belief dispel
the wildlife burn the breast
the onward tongue
the outward hand
deform the normal rainy
riot sunshine shelter wreck
of darkness derogate
assassinate and batten up
like bullets fatten up
the raving greed
reactivate a springtime
death by men by more
than you or I can
They sleep who know a regulated place
or pulse or tide or changing sky
according to some universal
stage direction obvious
like shorewashed shells
we share an afternoon of mourning
in between no next predictable
except for wild reversal hearse rehearsal
bleach the blacklong lunging
ritual of fright insanity and more
From Directed By Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005) © 2005 by The June M. Jordan Literary Trust.