Martin Luther King Jr. is dead: Chicago begins to burn

I was in front of the television set when Martin Luther King Jr was shot.  I remember the black and white newscast of frantic  cameraman capturing the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee where he had come to lead a peaceful march and a lone nut named James Earl Ray shot him as he was standing there.

The single shot was heard across the world, especially in Chicago as he was rushed to St. Josephs hospital and pronounced dead on the evening of April, 4th 1968. I was only 12 and his assassination plunged the city of Chicago into massive violence and turmoil. The Chicago Reader calls it the night Chicago burned and many discuss it today since Chicago’s murder rate has increased.

Many ask if the same past measures in calling the National Guard is something that we should do today when there are problems in the city. There are others that feel the riots had nothing to do with Martin Luther King and just about looting and burning.

Many don’t want to talk about it because it added to racial fear and the white flight.  It wasn’t even dark yet as commuters tried to get home among massive traffic jams where chaos ensued especially on the Eisenhower expressway that night fifty years ago.

Strangely, the Eisenhower stills see’s it minutes of closure due to shootings, one that just occurred not long ago. Riots began breaking out and news captured the violence but what was happening in the city was not the massive rioting but the raging fires that were set, one after another that was annihilating Chicago business in 1968. aFrom what sources claim, the police and fire department admitted they they were out of their control and needed help. According to the Chicago Reader, nearly 600 alarms were tripped in 24 hours. We stayed in our homes, evacuating city streets. It was then that Daley made the decision. Approximately 12,000 army troopers and 6,000 National Guardsmen took over the city.

According to the Chicago Tribune,Mayor Richard J. Daley later told reporters that he had ordered police “to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand . . . and . . . to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any stores in our city.” No official death toll is given but approximately 11 people died though approximately 500 were injured and many businesses destroyed. Blocks and buildings were gutted and in some sections of the city, remain the same.

And what were our feelings in my neighborhood, Calumet Heights? Though young enough to not quite get it, in my home, family and friends, I saw massive fear along with realtors telling everyone that their houses would drop like a rock and their post war businesses annihilated. This was just the beginning. My father had died a year prior and my mother and I were alone. The house needed alot of work so she was planning on downgrading anyway to an apartment.

We moved in 1970.  Over a half a million fled the city between 1970-1975 for safety in the suburbs and as children, that was the last thing we wanted. Starting high school in the suburbs was a foggy experience since my time spent growing up in Calumet Heights and Pill Hill was amazing along with many new black friends that felt the same way. At reunions today, many of us discuss that time with a deep seated sadness that we will never forget; tarnished by that massive decision. Never again.

I have traveled through the old neighborhood many times. In 2010, I actually had the courage to knock on the front door of my old home. An elderly black woman answered the door as I proceeded to tell her that I had lived in her home many moons ago. She mentioned my maiden name, which many could never pronounce, but she did perfectly.  Mrs Grisham? I said buried in a bank of memory that I did not know was still there. She nodded, smiled and said the neighborhood was not what it used to be since the house had a heavy, metal screen that she did not open. I smiled thinking that we truly experienced the same. She bought the home from my mother. As she spoke, I was reminded of a beautiful black women sitting on the couch under my Dad’s most treasured wall mirror in the living room.  “I have been here 42 years and my husband passed. I raised my son on my own. Just like your mother.I just found the bill of sale to the home and remembered how I felt so terrible that you lost your father at such a young age. That was the reason your mother moved you to an apartment.

All these years later, she knew exactly what I felt. We both wanted the same opportunity as a child, adult and parent.  I can’t give you a tour, she paused still dressed in her pajamas, but she stood aside so I could see the couch that was similar to my own with Dad’s mirror framing it.  Now I was able to glimpse the woman I had become in the reflection of his mirror after all these years and somehow he was telling me that he approved.