In April 1968 I was standing on a hill in my Baltimore neighborhood watching the city burn. Martin Luther King, Jr, had been assassinated. Smoke rose up from the center of the city.
One recent colleague of mine also lived in Baltimore at the time. She was a civil rights worker. She was white. This woman smuggled was out of town, covered in the back of a car.
The death of the preacher of non-violent protest had sparked one of the most violent series of riots in American history. Over a decade later I was riding a bus through a Washington, D.C. neighborhood. Even at that time it looked like a bombed out city from World War II.
The black American had had enough. Martin Luther King, in his 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech”, had warned of this day. He told the throngs listening to him on the mall in Washington, D.C. and a nationwide audience:
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
At the same time, he warned his black brethren that even though the spirit of revolution was marvelous, this mood should not lead to physical violence. To engage in it would strip the movement of its dignityand discipline.
But with the murder of their non-violent leader, how could the black American be blamed for their violent revolt? King had discussed what he called their “creative suffering ” in his speech. Since emancipation blacks had been beaten up by police, unjustly thrown in jail, denied voting rights, prevented from living or staying where they pleased, trapped in poverty-laden ghettoes and generally segregrated from white Americans. King called blacks exiles in their own country.
Most white Americans hadn’t been listening to the cries of blacks until King’s death in 1968. King likened the African American’s experience with the American dream to that of a bank customer who had been issued a huge check which had been returned, marked “insufficient funds”. The country had broken it’s promise to provide the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to all. People of color had been exempted.
Now many African Americans had decided the whole system was bankrupt and that they were going to burn down the bank.