Chapter 15: Steering Columbia SDS Into Action, 1968 (vii)
Everyone in the student hang-out was white. And only a small number seemed disturbed enough to remain glued to the TV set for more than a few minutes, although none of the whites were happy to hear the news of King’s assassination. By the time I left the restaurant, after watching the TV for about 20 minutes and hearing a saddened and enraged Stokely Carmichael proclaim that “White America just lost its best friend” and “Non-violence is dead” on the screen from Washington, D.C., all the other white students were again acting as if nothing special had happened.
Like Carmichael, I felt non-violence was dead and I was outraged that the Establishment had let King get assassinated. By early 1968, like most other white New Left activists, I felt King was insufficiently militant and was functioning as a “fireman” and “cooling out agent” in relationship to the African-American masses and the SNCC people whose advocacy of armed self-defense, more militant anti-imperialism, revolutionary nationalism, anti-integrationism and more aggressive call for Black political and economic empowerment in line with Malcolm X’s writings seemed to more adequately reflect the mood and aspirations of the Black working-class masses. But I was still angered that a morally righteous pacifist like King could be gunned down so easily, without the Establishment preventing his murder.
I immediately assumed that some kind of conspiracy was responsible for King’s murder. “The Establishment probably didn’t like King speaking out on U.S. foreign policy issues like opposing the war in Viet Nam and didn’t like his Poor People’s Campaign plans, which would attempt to unite poor whites with poor Blacks,” was my first thought. Hence, I thought, at first, that the Establishment just had the FBI turn the other way when white racist conspirators moved in on King. I had no idea, though, that Hoover and the FBI had been conducting an extensive secret COINTELPRO campaign to politically neutralize and eliminate King as a political force “to prevent the rise of a Black Messiah” for most of the 1960s. If I had known about the FBI’s anti-King surveillance and harassment campaign, I would have assumed that the FBI, itself, organized the assassination of Martin Luther King.
In response to King’s murder, I wondered what would happen in the African-American ghettos. I returned to my sister’s room. She had also heard the news and was also shocked, and we discussed the possible implications of the King assassination. We were not too surprised when we turned on her radio and heard news of spontaneous African-American rebellions starting to break out around the U.S. We also would have been in the streets burning the cities to protest the assassination, if we were Black and living in a ghetto. We wondered whether the Black Revolution would begin rapidly, now that King’s peaceful approach had been gunned down.
My sister told me that she had arranged a car ride to New York City for me, with one of her English professors. The professor, a guy from Brooklyn named Bleich, was only a white liberal, but he seemed to be attracted to my sister. So he had agreed to let me sit in his car, along with another student passenger, when he left the following morning to spend Indiana University’s spring break with his mother in Brooklyn.
Early the next morning, I kissed my sister goodbye and got into the back seat of Professor Bleich’s car. He was in his early-to-mid-30s and looked like an academic who was starting to age. He loved to talk. And since each hour on the road brought news from the car radio that more and more U.S. inner cities were burning in protest over the King assassination, we spent most of our time on the road debating what could be done to end racism in the U.S. I can’t recall any of the specifics of the discussion. I just recall that Bleich and I did most of the talking in the car and he was fearful of the prospect of Black Revolution and uncomfortable with the Black radicalism and nationalism of SNCC. Despite our political differences, though, as the car passed through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey—amidst more and more news of burning cities—we both agreed that the U.S. seemed to be falling apart, because of its failure to rapidly end the oppression of Black people and respond rapidly and positively enough to Martin Luther King’s movement, during King’s lifetime.
When we got to Manhattan, Professor Bleich dropped me off at the subway and I headed up to my dorm room at Columbia. I was surprised that no big mass-based African-American rebellion had taken place in Harlem or in Bedford-Stuyvesant, despite tempers being hot and the cops appearing to nearly provoke a rebellion. Mayor Lindsay’s white liberal approach to the African-American community and his willingness to personally visit African-American neighborhoods when people felt like revolting had proven to be an effective counter-insurgent approach and an effective way to cool down enough Black folk in New York City at this time.
Back at Columbia after King’s assassination, more people seemed to feel that the U.S. was in a political crisis, and more people were now interested in being political. An emergency inter-racial march to protest King’s assassination had marched from Times Square to Harlem, in which the spirit was more militant than in most previous Manhattan marches against racism. But around Columbia, Eugene McCarthy buttons suddenly also appeared on the shirts of many white liberals and white left-liberal students who had previously been flirting with involvement with SDS, following LBJ’s announcement that he would not seek re-election in 1968. A mass meeting in Wollman Auditorium at Columbia was then called by a group of left-liberal Columbia students, who hadn’t been active in SDS, to discuss the implications of King’s assassination.
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