April 4, 1968 – New York City
As you press on for justice, be sure to move with
dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love.
Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence.
If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — 1956
There is so much fear and distraction these days over the state of the world …
And yet surely, ‘All times,’ as Saint Teresa said,
'are dangerous times.’
Dorothy Day — circa 1940
Age and circumstance have put me far on the outskirts of the present “unrest,” as some call it (though when was there ever rest?). I’ve watched little of it on television because in times like these watching TV doesn’t count as “bearing witness.” Memory, however, may be useful. In that spirit I offer this essay, “History As Oneself,” part of a work-in-progress that I may or may not finish. However, “History As Oneself” is written to connect with another essay, “The Weeping,” that is: the continuous suffering of so very many, always, all-at-once.
“The Weeping” concludes:
We separate the present moment of our history into issues — poverty, illiteracy, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, human trafficking, species extinction, civil rights, gender rights, abortion, gun madness, homelessness, joblessness, pandemic virus, epidemic mental illness, epidemic drug use, epidemic pollution, epidemic incarceration, migrations, and on and on, all the way to planetary ecological collapse.
The word “issue” is useful, if paltry, for a focus upon one thing or another, but consider:
All this anguish rises and falls on the same great wave we call the present moment, and what connects it all isn’t a statistic or an idea or a story or a Left or a Right or a Center — what connects it all, more than any other single element, is The Weeping. Clearly no social program, no economic system, no political platform, no religious position and certainly no vision can be taken seriously if The Weeping is not central to its concerns.
And if even the momentary consideration of this enormous Weeping is almost more than you can bear I say, Hallelujah! Because “almost more than you can bear” means something of your own, some part of you, remains untainted, civilized, sane.
So, coming this far, we’re faced with a question, as we always are when we’ve come far enough
— a question no one can answer for anyone else: How do I take responsibility for what I know?
History as Oneself
This begins as a story about Henry and Carl.
Henry lived in Harlem. A big man, not a fat man; he was supposed to be big. Very large hands yet a limp handshake, because, in Henry’s generation, dark brown African-Americans raised in the South would not lightly reveal strength to a white man. He was old enough to be my father. A cook by trade. Summers he was employed by a Unitarian-Universalist camp near Mahopac, New York. That’s how I knew him and what I knew of him. High school summers I was a counselor at that camp and sometimes I worked in his kitchen, where Henry never had to raise his voice; he inspired deference and obedience from anyone of any rank who entered his domain. And he was expert at his trade. Nothing fancy, but mealtimes were happy.
Carl was slim and he wasn’t an albino but he was awfully blond and awfully pale. He’d spend a summer in the sun and still be pale. We were almost the same age. During our high school years we shared a large bedroom on the second floor of the parish house across the street from the Unitarian-Universalist church of Waterville, Maine. Carl’s father was the pastor. I was kind of a refugee from New York City’s streets. Maine was Mars to me, while Carl was thoroughly of New England. One day he would lead a varied and adventurous life, but in the years when we were close Carl held back, often greeting the world with a suspicious look that was almost a glare. He liked to laugh, but not with strangers, and, New England stubborn, he’d stand his ground no matter what.
Carl worked in Henry’s kitchen entire summers and the two became great friends.
I don’t know a thing about that, though it’s at the core of the story I’m telling here. What was strange to me about their friendship was that it didn’t seem strange. Yes, it would be hard to exaggerate their differences, and God knows what they talked about, but each in his way possessed a quietude, an inviolate quality: in part, a temple within; also, in part, a prison within. I sensed this in Henry and knew it well in Carl: something inside him could not or would not speak, and the unspoken far outweighed the spoken in his heart. Carl was, in essence, a person of action, who every day sought anew the strength to be steadfast and do right.
It’s the seeking it anew every day that marked Carl. As for Henry, he had no marks that I knew how to see.
So: in the Spring of 1968, Carl was coming to the big city to see Henry and to see me. One journey of two visits, each carefully compartmented.
Me was a we. Antonia and I had just moved in together, up in the Bronx, posing as married because that was necessary with our landlord — a not uncommon requirement at the time. (Gay and lesbian couples could be “roommates” unquestioned.) We were so very much in love, but I was too immature and selfish to bear such a love, so our days together were numbered and we were beginning to know it; it made for a poignancy that became the atmosphere of anything we did. Antonia was much more than beautiful, but her beauty has a place at the end of this story, so I’ll tell you: She shone! Yes, she was beautiful in her features, but that’s common enough in a big city; Antonia stood apart because something about her gleamed. We lived in a neighborhood of many Eastern European immigrants, Holocaust survivors among them. I’d buy a newspaper alone and the newsstand man, with his thick accent, would want to know, “Vhere isk sheeee?!” I waited at a fruit stand while she shopped, and a middle-aged immigrant, a woman who would not otherwise speak to me, couldn’t help but utter, “So beautiful, that girl.” I’m walking alone and a very old woman in black clothing, a black kerchief covering her hair, she grabs my wrist: “Oh! You’re the young man — you’re the young man with the pretty wife.” I was 22. Antonia had just turned 19.
How we met is not germane, except to say that it was not because our workplaces were both on East 42nd Street, steps away from Grand Central Station, the official name of which is Grand Central Terminal. So naturally, after work, we met Carl at The Clock — that is, Grand Central’s Information Booth, atop of which is The Clock. It’s a New York City thing to meet there, where Carl saw what could not be seen in Maine, or, really, anywhere else on the continent in 1968: rush hour in a not-yet-gentrified Manhattan, where it seemed that every face of the human race, every color and ethnicity and type and class, proceeded very quickly, this way and that, through an enormous hall.
There may have been a reason to build it so wide but there was none to build it so high, except that they did. In that hall, you’re tiny. And the person you’re to meet is maybe two yards away but at rush hour you can’t see your appointment because eight or ten people fill the space in between, and all are in motion. We spotted Carl through the crowd by his qualities of blondness.
In 1968 Grand Central Terminal was in its funkiest state, as was the city generally. Everything was grimy, and services from garbage collection to building inspection were famously corrupt — not to mention the cops. It was the polis that Bruce Springsteen sang in his “New York City Serenade,” where Manhattan at night is “a mad dog’s promenade” and you’d best walk tall if you walk at all. A largely working-class city that you may see accurately depicted (albeit from an almost exclusively male point of view) in a Seventies string of “tough New York” movies: Panic In Needle Park, Mean Streets, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Taxi Driver. As I say, almost everybody officially in charge of anything was morally rotten except, remarkably, the mayor, one John V. Lindsay, the only politician who shall be mentioned by name in this volume (for reasons soon to be clear). In such a city, if you were, shall we say, financially unprotected, and if you wanted to survive with your dignity intact, you learned what we called “street sense.” Street sense does not mean you know every scam and scammer on the block; it means you walk with an awareness that out of any shadow may come something that can harm you. One remarkable quality of Antonia’s was that, though raised in a quiet Connecticut town, she got street sense right away. And while I might be nervous of walking the city’s night with uninitiated out-of-towners, it was not so with Carl. In his youth he had an innate wariness that served him well anywhere.
So after work Antonia and I met Carl at Grand Central. It was, so far, an unremarkable Thursday.
We showed Carl around grungy Greenwich Village. We ate somewhere cheap. We were bound for a nightclub, the name of which I’ve forgotten, north and east of Washington Square. Not a pricey or large or famous club. Janis Joplin (still not well known in the East) was to open for B.B. King (also not yet a Northeast draw). About 7:20 p.m., on the street, walking to the club, we learned, by a kind of street-osmosis, that, just minutes ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot. I don’t remember how we heard, but it was the kind of city where somebody might just walk right up and tell you.
It is difficult to describe how, at that moment, everything changed. Everything in the air, in the night, changed, every sound had a different feel, every face a different charge, everything one looked at in the East Village seemed somehow portentous. All of a sudden, The Weeping hovered over everywhere, and everything radiated a kind of threat.
Dr. King was not dead, we were told; he was shot. Now, as I write, weeping is in my chest and behind my eyes — but not at the time. We were stunned. We’d shifted, in an instant, from feeling like fun (Mayor Lindsay impossibly called New York “Fun City”) to step into the clasp of an awful hope: maybe King would be alright. I say awful because — you walk through your day, anywhere, without being aware that in fact you assume a cohesion which helps you to stand erect and take the next step — but only a few words, like “Dr. King has been shot,” can rip that cohesion away and leave you nowhere.
What to do? Where to go? We three continued toward the nightclub, a destination no less pointless than any other. It was a dark little place. Ms. Joplin happened to be standing just inside, and her expression matched Antonia’s and Carl’s and the bouncer’s and, no doubt, mine: bleak. When words were necessary, they were spoken in hushed tones. All knew there’d be no show. We were just there. Paid a cover-charge because that’s what you do. Ordered drinks because that’s what you do. There was recorded music on the sound system, utterly inappropriate. Not very much time passed. The music cut off abruptly and a spotlight lit the small stage. B.B. King appeared, with his guitar. He told us Dr. King was dead. Then, with no words, and as though we were not there, he played his blues for a while.
We three sat in a moment that I now almost understand. You’re minding your own affairs, you’re being a You whom you recognize as yourself, when suddenly something that can only be called history, HISTORY — enormous, collective, not a something-or-other of the past but a propellant — has suddenly swept you up, without your assent. You are of it, like it or not. It’s not this-one-pulled-the-trigger, or this-one-died, or this-or-that-might-happen-as-a-result . . . no, it’s all-at-once, suddenly feeling (and trying to reject) one’s own connection to everything. So of course you resist that connection, of course one prefers to be only oneself, with just one’s own little life (which, before being propelled into the collective fate, seemed quite enough to deal with). The inchoate sense of History, which is also somehow impossibly oneself, is not grasped by the mind, nor even by the emotions, but rather is felt as a kind of pressure upon one’s entire body.
And History presented, this night, a specific problem for Carl.
Henry lived in Harlem. In that era Harlem was, and had been for fifty years, the African-American capital of the country and (Africa being in the shape it was) the “Negro” capital of the world. Everybody expected that this night our country would burn, and that the fires would likely start in Harlem. The summer previous, there were urban riots all across the nation; many died. The summer before that, a New York City riot. The year before that, the first of the Sixties riots: Watts, in Los Angeles. This night, there would be riots in 110 American cities. Harlem was never a safe place at night for anyone, black or white, and, in that, it was no different from many neighborhoods in Fun City. But tonight, especially, it was no place for a white guy.
Please understand, as I tell this story, fears of that night’s particular consequences were the least, the very least, of the enormity in the atmosphere. Another year, another riot, what the fuck, right? But to face the bloodied absence of the person who embodied the moral center of the era — and, yes, Dr. King hadn’t done it alone; he stood on many shoulders, but at that time there was no one to replace him, as was proved, for no one has — so to face his sudden bloodied absence constituted a horror inexpressible, a Weeping inexhaustible.
And, yes, there were other assassinations in that epoch. When the 35th U.S. president was killed in 1963 the nation emoted on a grand scale, but that was pretty much about image — his “promise,” as we like to say. Unsentimental study reveals his achievements to be either meager or dangerous or both. Two months after King’s assassination, the 35th’s brother, a presidential candidate, was murdered; again, the mourning was about a perceived promise, not achievement. When Malcolm X was murdered in 1965, those of us who mourned did so for a person cut down at the time when he was most ripe for making history. So, yes, there’d been assassinations to ruin promises of what might be. But Martin Luther King, Jr., had achieved; he’d done more than any American before or since to change the nature of justice in this country and the standard of justice in this world. Which is why, as I write, his example still gives forth.
So. Antonia, Carl, me — three stunned people, three very young people — in a Greenwich Village nightclub that evening.
The club, of course, had a payphone near the restrooms. Most joints did. Carl called Henry for directions to Harlem. Get to the A Train with this or that transfer and take the A Train to I-can’t-remember-which station. Henry would be waiting on the platform. The specific problem for Carl was not whether or not to go, but whether or not he’d make it.
I’ll avoid, here on this page, a false sense of drama, and tell you all went well. The white guy made it in, and, next day, which was perhaps more dangerous, the white guy made it out.
I thought Carl was crazy to go but I kept my mouth shut because I understood. It didn’t do, on that night of all nights, to give in to fear. Henry and Carl had nothing to prove to anybody; they kept to their intentions, each man, in order to uphold an individual core of dignity. They were not aware of being witnessed; they were not making gestures; they were living their lives. That night, of all nights, it was important to be themselves, even if this meant coming to harm.
So, go or stay, their behavior was sort of a non-event in History, wasn’t it? Isn’t that what most people would say? But I say, No. No and no and no. When History presses upon oneself directly, requiring a choice and perhaps many choices, requiring sometimes even that you risk your life — that is when one realizes that History is not something inert, not a “subject” from the past, but rather historical forces are the air you breathe and the street you walk, always, and you yourself are an active ingredient. Henry and Carl could not change the world that night, but they could hold the line where they themselves stood.
How can we take responsibility for what we know?
Another blond went to Harlem that night: the mayor of New York City, a Republican, John V. Lindsay. It wasn’t his first visit. Summertime was riot-time in the Sixties. By July 1966, the summer of Lindsay’s first mayoral year, cities as different as Cleveland, Chicago, Omaha, and Jacksonville burned. “In scorching New York City,” just as trouble was taking off, “Mayor Lindsay loosened his tie and walked by himself straight into the heart of things . . . he might easily
have been shot right there, but he wasn’t, and the unrest subsided” [New York Daily News, 2001]. During Lindsay’s administration, and at his direction, it became the New York Police Department’s riot policy not to shoot looters or anyone else, except in situations of dire self-defense. The night that Dr. King was killed, Mayor Lindsay headed for Harlem accompanied by only a couple of aides and a couple of plain-clothes detectives.
One aide was David Garth, who remembers: “There was a wall of people coming across 125th Street, going from west to east. I thought we were dead. John raised his hand, said he was sorry. It was very quiet. My feeling was, his appearance there was very reassuring to people because it wasn’t the first time they had seen him. He had gone there on a regular basis. That gave him credibility when it hit the fan.” When Lindsay died, in 2000, The New York Times remembered that “when riots tore at Detroit, Newark, Los Angeles, and other cities, he walked the steamy night streets of Harlem and other black areas, tie askew, jacket flung over the shoulder, taller than anyone else, talking.”
His former chief of staff, Jay Kriegel: “He was told, ‘You can’t go in that neighborhood, you can’t go on that street. It’s too tough, it’s too difficult.’ There was no street John Lindsay wouldn’t walk on alone. He sent a message that he heard people’s complaints. The Times: “Surely the most memorable image is of a mayor in a trench coat, heading bravely into the city’s tormented black communities.”
That is the legend and Lindsay, though never much of an administrator, well deserved the legend — but that’s not all that happened outside Henry’s window, with Henry and Carl watching through the night. Check out The Times of the next morning (April 5, 1968) and you learn that, after calming the crowd, Lindsay met with Harlem leaders. As the meeting broke up, at 126th Street and Seventh Avenue, a different crowd was much more hostile and there was no calming them. A limo appeared, Lindsay was pushed into the car and sped to safety. But the story doesn’t stop there. He went back. At 1 a.m. John V. Lindsay crisscrossed Harlem in a car until he was satisfied that his city would not burn. And the next day, and the next, and the next, he was on the street, in the neighborhoods, with only a couple of detectives and a couple of aides, talking with anyone who’d talk to him.
Something that should have become legendary
goes unremembered . . .
But even that is far from the whole tale. Something that should have become legendary goes unremembered, pushed to the back pages: page 26, in fact, of that April 5th Times, the headline of a brief article: “Hundreds of Negroes Walking Streets, Trying To Calm Others and Halt Violence.” Carl, Henry, and John V. Lindsay, were far from the only ones who took responsibility for their beliefs and made a stand that night.
Consider the stakes: When we speak of Harlem as a “neighborhood,” and the “neighborhoods” of the South Bronx and Bedford-Stuyvesant, etc., we’re speaking of tightly compressed areas the total population of which was 1.6 million. In a city of slightly less than 8 million, 1.6 million was more, at the time, than the total population of Houston; more than twice the total population of Atlanta; and roughly half the total population of Los Angeles. A full-on riot in New York City would have been a human catastrophe. The nameless unarmed civilian peacekeepers who patrolled the streets that night, and the mayor, risked their lives because they knew the stakes.
Elsewhere, rage and rage-in-response-to-rage roiled for days. In Memphis, 4,000 National Guard were deemed necessary to keep the peace. In D.C., the 36th U.S. president filled our ruling city with 13,600 troops and mounted machine guns on the steps of the Capitol building. Two days after King’s death 6,700 National Guard and 5,000 regular Army troops occupied Chicago; its mayor gave police authority to “shoot to kill” and “shoot to maim or cripple,” although he had no legal right to do so. Baltimore was occupied by 5,000 paratroopers. Nashville, Tennessee; Greensboro, Raleigh, and four other cities in North Carolina; Jackson, Mississippi; Hartford, Connecticut; Newark and Trenton, New Jersey; Detroit, Michigan; Kansas City, Missouri; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Cincinnati, Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky — and dozens more — burned. Meanwhile, in New York City, there was minor and scattered looting and arson, but nothing rising to the level of riot, and the rate of violence during that Thursday-through-Sunday period was actually lower than average. Taking responsibility for one’s beliefs, putting oneself on the line, both on the street and at the highest level of city government, New Yorkers demonstrated what was possible — for those few nights, even in this world.
As for Antonia and myself, we did not take a stand, nor make a meaningful gesture; we just went home on the subway, a line that ran first under Harlem and then under the South Bronx. But that was New York any night. The neighborhood didn’t have to be black. Hell’s Kitchen, Little Italy, Spanish Harlem, Chinatown, the Lower East Side, Red Hook, Bed-Sty, Ridgewood — if you didn’t look like you belonged you could easily draw trouble, especially after dark, above or below street level. And a woman alone, or even accompanied, was in danger anywhere; but for a woman of the very special beauty Antonia possessed, the only deterrent was a certain street-wise air of self-possession.
On subway platforms and on trains that night, all shared a potent sense of uncertainty. Men of various colors and ages, alone and in aggregations, boarded our subway car. They’d look at Antonia, I’d look at them, then I’d look at nothing, and a moment would pass when, if something was to happen, it would happen — but nothing did. Which was usual subway etiquette. What was not usual was the very scary feeling of not knowing if buildings above us were burning.
Remember, we were kids: 22, 19. Yes, Dr. King was only 27 when he came to prominence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but we’re not to be compared with him, so: We were kids. We had the historical perspective of hummingbirds. Yes, the struggle for civil rights — a child could understand that; yes, our country was fighting an unjust war — footage every night on all three networks convinced of that. But issues commonplace today were still out of sight, as in: the meaning of “gay” was “festive”; homosexuality was against the law; and “sexism” wasn’t a word yet, at least not in the proletarian vocabulary. So it didn’t strike us as odd the next day that, of the thirty-ish responses to Dr. King’s death cited by The New York Times, all were male; not one American woman was thought significant enough to have an opinion.
In just one year all that would start to change, and was already changing under the radar, out of public sight. But Antonia and I pretty much took the world as we’d found it; it was simply our environment and we were simply trying to live — and love! — on our own terms. I didn’t understand at the time how that is a pretty radical conception of freedom, but I did understand it was why Carl and Henry didn’t chicken out of their visit . . . as I understood that, if Antonia was threatened, it was my job to die for her. (I did not understand, or refused to understand, what it might mean to live for her.) And I’d begun to think of myself as a writer, facing the dare of the blank page nearly every night without a clue. And . . . we weren’t college kids; in the morning we had day-jobs to go to, riot or no riot. There was no one to support us but ourselves. My salary was $70 per week, no paid sick days, no benefits. Antonia’s was similar. I go on at this length just to say: we were two small people in the wilderness of this world.
That we did understand.
Meanwhile, as we rode (like the song says) “in a hole in the ground” . . . the blond mayor and hundreds of New York’s 1.6 million African-Americans walked the streets of Harlem and other ghettos where they . . . kept the peace? There was no peace to keep, not really, not anywhere, there still isn’t. They kept the calm. They took responsibility for what they believed and kept the calm.
Michael Ventura © 2020. All rights reserved.
Michael Ventura is a writer who lives in California near a lighthouse.
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