Thursday, April 3, 2008

Forty Years Ago

I was 13, and just beginning to be interested in politics, society, and the world outside my own. I was on the road with my family for a long week-end in Joplin, Mo., when I heard the news on the radio. My father pulled over at a truck stop, and he and my mother discussed whether we should continue. After a long conversation, it was decided we should go on---going home wouldn't change anything, and might even frighten the little ones.

We were accompanying my Dad on a business trip, and the whole point of the trip was a stay in a swanky hotel. But when we got there, the hotel was deserted; most of the guests staying there had left. There was also a rumour about, that claimed Dr. King's killer was headed to the Joplin area. (Joplin, the southeastern area of Kansas, and northwestern Oklahoma was an area that is infamous for harboring criminals---it was said to be a favorite of Bonnie and Clyde's.) It was a strange weekend, sometimes scary, and very sad, as we watched the faces of Dr. King's wife and children.

We were back in town by Monday. Dr. King's funeral was scheduled for Tuesday. The school district of Kansas City Kansas had called off classes for the day, so that students and staff could watch the services on televison. But the Kansas City Missouri school district decided to hold classes after all.

Emotions were running high. Students from Lincoln, Central and Manual High Schools (mostly black schools) staged a walk-out, and headed downtown to the Mayor's office and school district headquarters. Police in riot gear confronted the students at the intersection of Truman and Paseo, and after heated words were exchanged, a gas cannister was dropped, and the violence began.

More students marched from other schools, some threatening to attack the mostly white schools in other parts of the district (white enrollment in the Kansas City Mo. School District has dropped steadily every year since.) Police confronted those marchers as well, beating and arresting the young students.

By then the riot was full scale; a major part of the east side was burning, police and public were exchanging gunfire, people were dying. The National Guard was finally called in. I remember feeling the fear emanating from my mother as she drove all five of her children to pick up my dad at the bus station from yet another business trip, as National Guardsmen held their weapons at the ready, as they patrolled the city streets.

City leaders finally came together, and the rioting eventually ceased. The neighborhood I now live in looks much the same as it did 40 years ago , post riot. Most of the white population of the city has left for the suburbs. The only difference is a large mural of scenes of Dr. King's life looms over Troost Avenue, surrounded by empty buildings, vacant lots, and small businesses, struggling to survive.

For a really excellent snapshot of this time in history, read this piece posted on Maggie's Meta Watershed by my friend Maggie Jochild:

by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

......Or does it explode?.

1 comment:

Maggie Jochild said...

Ah, that poem is perfect. I used to have it on my closet door when I was a teenager. Thanks for sharing.