Feb 21

A Night in April, 1968

In Brief—The author’s reminiscences of the night of April 5, 1968, the night after the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray.

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It Wasn’t a Dark and Stormy Night—

There was remarkably little traffic on the streets that night. They were unusually quiet for a spring Friday evening in early April. No cruising and celebrating the weekend. Just an eerie absence of cars.

I was a white law student in a white Porsche, nicely dressed in suit and tie. I was on my way to the Sheriff’s substation for a night ride-along in the back of a sheriff’s department squad car with two deputies who were going to show me what an evening was like in the black ghetto where they worked.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

But this wasn’t just another Friday night. It was the night after the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, the evening before. There was a sense of expectancy in the air. We all felt it.

I was in my second year of law school and had signed up for this ride-along earlier in the year little knowing what lay in the future.

I parked under the brightest light I could find in the station parking lot. The two deputies who would show me their section of town were two of the biggest, hardest men I’d ever met. Crew cuts and starched military-looking uniforms gave them an aura of “don’t screw with me” toughness. The pistols and equipment that hung at their waists emphasized that seriousness. The Southern accent of the bigger of the two hinted at what I would later see.

One of our first stops was a bar/pool hall filled with smoke and the click of balls. The moment we entered, a silence descended. You could have cut it with a knife. Nothing moved. Not a word was spoken. The hostility of both the customers and the deputies was apparent. I was glad to be accompanied by two imposing-looking deputies. I thought to myself that I hoped the customers believed I was a detective. Or maybe they saw me as a scared law student in the company of “The Man.” They probably saw only the two armed deputies.

The deputies swaggered slowly through the quiet room, exiting through the back door into the alley. I felt a sense of relief.

We cruised the streets slowly. It was unnaturally calm. Little traffic and few people. It was almost eerie. At one point, one of the deputies apologized for the absence of the action they usually encountered.

As I was to learn, that was not the case in other cities across the country. The rage had erupted and took several days to subside. Los Angeles officials had met with representatives of the black community and defused the anger. It simmered, but it didn’t boil over.

A call over the radio led us to the aftermath of a fight in a nearby neighborhood. At the scene, one of the apartments was missing the large front window. A drunken man, bleeding profusely, wandered about the front yard. Obviously, he had gone through the window. Maybe he had been pushed. Witnesses weren’t sure.

The deputies handled the situation, but the cut victim had suffered severe cuts. They talked to the bleeding man as if he were a child, calling him “Boy” although he appeared to be a mature man of middle years. They put him in the back seat beside me. It’s probably a good thing he was so drunk because he seemed relatively numb despite his injuries. Though my memory is vague now, I recall that an ambulance arrived, the victim was loaded in the back and it drove off.

Because it was so quiet, I was released just after midnight. The trip home through silent streets lifted my anxiety at being in the heart of the ghetto on the night after Martin Luther King’s assassination. But the experience left a mark on me, a strong impression and a measure of understanding that I carry to this day.

A quiet night in April, 1968.

HEADS-UP— The March 3 (for one week as usual) piece, “The Shakespeare Myth” explains why Mary Sidney wrote the Shakespearean plays and sonnets.

6 comments

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    • Donna Boe on February 22, 2016 at 04:40

    how eerie and how scary! That experience gave you a perspective on what we are seeing on the news now. Has it always been this way?

      • Don Bay on February 22, 2016 at 09:47
        Author

      It’s always been this way and even much worse. Only the approach by the haters has changed. Let’s remember that the United States is the world leader in incarceration. Slavery ended to be replaced by locking “them” up. That’s part of America’s shame.

      What this piece shows is a lawyer in training and a white guy in transition to reality. Unfortunately, relatively few of my classmates took advantage of this opportunity. And the tragedy of Martin Luther King’s assassination was both unanticipated and the beginning of my education. My years in court educated me to the injustice of America’s “justice” system. That hasn’t changed. Until that becomes humane and equal, America will continue to sink in the swamp of injustice.

    • Linda on February 24, 2016 at 07:03

    Today I stopped at the ATM on my way to work. As I was getting into my car, I heard a commotion coming from the alley across the street. I stopped and looked to see a man shove another into a wall and watched the body slide down to the ground. Several people looked on as the attacker walked away.
    One person went to the fallen man who seemed limp. I called 911 and they transferred my call to the police. I reported what I saw. The response was that they would not send an ambulance unless I knew someone was injured. I hadn’t asked for an ambulance and if the 911 operator had thought that was what I wanted, she wouldn’t have transferred me to the police. I was left with, a “call. us back if you find out more.”
    Perhaps I am assuming too much, but I believe that since I identified the area as the alley on Jefferson and Crenshaw, the altercation I described was not worth checking out and after the dispatcher seemed to think since other people were standing around the fallen victim, those people would seek help if it was necessary, I explained that while I wasn’t certain, the people standing around appeared to be homeless, that made the situation even less important.
    I had buried my early morning 911 call and it returned to me after I read your blog. My stomach is churning.

      • Don Bay on February 24, 2016 at 16:04
        Author

      What you describe is all too common these days, particularly when it occurs in certain parts of town and there are homeless people involved. Had you been calling from Beverly Hills the police would have been there in a hurry. To Protect and to Serve” is just an empty slogan.

      My experience in 1968 when I was a relatively naive white guy isn’t that different from today. For me as an experienced lawyer a few years later, I understood the police mindset and was immersed in the injustice I saw. And still the injustice continues.

      What you have witnessed is just the bare tip of the iceberg, an iceberg that will sink the ship of state unless some serious positive changes take place soon.

      That observation aside, it’s not worth it for you to get eaten up inside. Knowing you, I suspect that it will move you to action toward positive change. You are just one person, but when enough people are moved to change the status quo, positive change will come.

    • Bodil Halvarson on February 25, 2016 at 00:46

    Dear Don! I read your blog with interest. Thank you for thinking and writing! Hug from your old friend and new follower Bodil

      • Don Bay on February 25, 2016 at 10:20
        Author

      Welcome to my little blog and my tossed salad life. I may be a little pedantic at times, but I try to stimulate thought at the same time as I hope to honestly entertain my readers. As a friend, your occasional comments will let me know if I am succeeding.

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