Civil Liberties

April 4, 1968: The Moment That Made Me a Radical

Forty years ago, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. radicalized a generation of African Americans.
Chicago burned. The flames that were raging on the West Side were clearly visible outside of the school bus window that was carrying my high school jazz band. It was from this bus that I first glimpsed the insurrection and the grip of radical revolution took hold of me. Why call the "riot" an insurrection? Because to me that was clearly what it was. Chicago's fate was being shared with over 100 sister cities throughout the United States -- cities and neighborhoods not unlike mine -- that had erupted in mass violence as word of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. swept the nation.

I was 16, and about to enter college, and my roots were anything but revolutionary. My father's side of the family was built around powerful black conservative Democratic politicians and proud veterans whose service as Army officers dated back to World War I. My mother's side was composed of black civil rights activists, leftists, and centrists, comfortably middle-class, with a tradition of non-violence bordering on, but not quite reaching, pacifism. The expectation -- or at least strong hope -- from my father was that I would serve in Vietnam as an officer, or at a minimum join the ROTC. Neither side of the family provided any encouragement or foundation for black radicalism. I had selected Stanford for college, not because it was a hotbed of revolution, but because I wanted to be a physicist or an engineer, and perhaps continue to play music.

On April 4, 1968, however, things changed. The assassination made radicals of thousands of young blacks like me who envisioned themselves as engineers, lawyers, steel mill workers, secretaries, nurses, and doctors. Yes, the radicalization of black politics had begun years earlier. North Carolina NAACP leader Robert Williams, in the 1950s, had asserted the right of blacks to defend themselves with arms. And the rise of Malcolm X in the 1960s, and the founding of the Black Panther Party in 1966, powerfully influenced black urban youth.

But for many in my generation, it was the cold killing of the man of peace that accelerated and solidified the movement.

I was in a daze in the days that followed the assassination. I could not understand how such an event was even possible, although I was well aware of the numerous murders that had already befallen the Civil Rights Movement. By 1968, Dr. King was almost the only voice respected by the youth who was still calling for non-violence. I began to painfully accept the words of H. Rap Brown, a militant leader of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, when he said "Violence is as American as cherry pie." I felt politically rootless for the first time in my life.

Both my father's unbreakable commitment to the Democratic party (right or wrong), and my mother and her family's commitment to non-violent change seemed increasingly irrelevant. If Dr. King would not be allowed to successfully lead a non-violent movement for social justice, who could?

On Chicago's South Side, where I lived, young people were primed for revolutionary change by our environment. Though we clung to our parents' ideals, we were not surprised by the extraordinary levels of hatred, violence and official condemnation -- the latter vociferously led by the first Mayor Daley -- that met the King led civil rights marches in Chicago in the mid-1960s. Police harassment and abuse was routine for blacks, regardless of class.

By the time I was 16, I had been pulled over and accused of truancy, bank robbery, and selling drugs. Only the political prominence of my family forced the police to consider that I might be telling the truth when I claimed to be innocent of the various accusations leveled at me. Poor black males had it worse, of course. They didn't have political connections, or access to good lawyers, and they were unable to make their way out of trouble. They were also more likely to be severely beaten.

The flood of body bags and funerals for casualties of the war in Indochina in the years leading up to the assassination also fueled our anger. The damage from the war was not only caused by the high numbers of casualties suffered in communities of color, but all of us knew young men who had come back from the war bearing massive psychological scars in addition to the physical wounds.

Militant leaders and organizations were gaining prominence. But what we saw happening around us, conflicted with the lessons we were being taught at home. Both of my parents were extremely critical of Malcolm X, but I was intrigued by the very long lines outside the mosque in Chicago to hear him. After Dr. King's assassination, his writing would probably be the single largest political influence on me and many other young black people.

My middle class neighborhood was instantly transformed after King's assassination. White National Guard troops drawn from the rural Midwest set up a base camp in a park one block from our home. We would walk past soldiers who had never seen blacks before, manning vehicles with 50 caliber machine guns on the way to the bus stop. The combination of the police and the army made many blacks feel like hostile forces were occupying their communities.

Added to all of the above were feelings of oppression caused by the continuing wave of assassinations of black leaders and activists. Malcolm X was not the first -- neither were the four young girls who died in 1963 when their Birmingham church was bombed. And Dr. King was not the last. In my own city, nationally respected Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was assassinated by Chicago police forces on December 4, 1969, a week before I returned home from my first semester in college for Christmas break. The city (or at least the Southside) seemed even tenser then than after the assassination of Dr. King.

Out of this cauldron emerged one of the most organized communities in the world. In the military, on the shop floor, in their communities and on college campuses, blacks from all backgrounds and of all ages organized for change -- radical change, and in more than a few instances --revolutionary change. I was swept up in this tide as soon as I entered college. The Black Student Union at Stanford had an event for incoming first year students every night of the week. We heard the charismatic Minister of Information of the Black Panther Party, Eldridge Cleaver, give one of his most infamous speeches in which he called for all of us across races to join the revolution -- even while peppering the speech with the kind of misogynistic rhetoric that he was known for. Another night we saw a play by the award-winning, soon to become revolutionary, writer Leroi Jones (later Amiri Baraka). A third night there was a jazz concert.

There were sessions set up to recruit volunteers to work in the nearby working class black community; and there were parties. All of these diverse, organized events transformed what had been a very small group of black students (probably less than 20 on the entire campus) a few years earlier to a disciplined group of several hundred part-time activists.

By my sophmore year, I was involved in the leadership of the black student union. My first two years at Stanford were filled with intense involvement with other black students, whether it be organizing militant protests or playing bid whist. Despite my desires, it soon became apparent that a science or engineering career was not compatible with my activism.

I chose activism.

Tutoring children in the local black community, fighting to establish a viable black studies program, supporting black workers on campus, linking up with militant black students throughout the Bay Area, and constantly protesting American imperialist involvement in Vietnam were more important to me than my studies. I was not the type to drop out of school, so I gravitated from physical science to political science as a major, but two years later I dropped out as both the demands and chaos of the times increased.

And I knew that I was no longer committed to the non-violent philosophy that, for me, had died with Dr. King. Race relations on campus were hostile. A car in which I was riding was driven off the road by white students who objected to our presence. Someone attempted to burn down a dorm room that housed two black women students. An African student was badly beaten by white male students for dating a white woman. Like other students facing racial assaults, when attacked, I defended myself.

This was not a comfortable transition for me. I had leaned toward non-violent protest as the correct course in high school. Calls from my grandfather while I was in college, urging me to return to the non-violent path were wrenching. A son of a slave, he had seen more discrimination and oppression in both the deep South and the urban North than I ever would. But I still deeply believed that blacks would not be listened to unless we made it clear that the consequences for continuing to ignore us and our just demands were too great.

Many of these activists would go on to the type of careers typical of Stanford graduates. Some of us -- a minority, but a substantial one when multiplied by those making the same choice across the nation -- would be immersed in radical activism over the next several years. The results were mixed, and many lives were irreparably broken.

The positive outcomes should not be forgotten even given the cost. Black Studies was institutionalized in the nation's universities. Institutions ranging from the Army to the universities became more racially egalitarian than they had been. Black workers became more and more able to assert their rights in being hired and joining unions. They could also have some say in how they were treated once employed. There were grave mistakes made and failures as well.

When many people think of this time they point to The Black Panthers or Malcolm X as catalysts to the radical movement. And, of course, they had their place. But for me, and others like me, the first step toward conscious radicalism, as opposed to unfocused anger, was the April 4, 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

When the most righteous man of peace this nation had seen for decades was struck down, the hope for a peaceful, moderate, reconciliation of the races was struck down, as well.

Although not a slogan of the day, "No Justice, No Peace," was to become a way of life for many, for many years to come.