Friday, April 04, 2008

It was 40 years ago today …

Unless you lived through it, you cannot even begin to comprehend …

The sheer ugliness. Hatred. Polarization. Turmoil. Strife. Divisiveness. Rancor. Anarchy. Chaos. Uncertainty. Trauma.

It was 40 years ago today: The murder of Martin Luther King Jr.

It was the tipping point for an already chaotic time amid the backdrop of: The Vietnam war. The draft. Student riots. The SDS. The Black Panthers. Nascent feminism. Radical activism. Flag-burning. An expanding counterculture. Growing drug use. Backlash. Tension. Fighting in the streets. Riots.

When James Earl Ray slayed Martin Luther King, Jr., it culminated a period of sheer ugliness, and triggered even more ugliness over the ensuing weeks, months, years. If you were just entering high school in certain neighborhoods in Pittsburgh at that time, well, good luck. Formative years? How about just trying to survive? Keep your head down. Avoid the fights. Because there were fights. Lots of them. Every day.

To say the environment was polarized is an understatement. Kids from different neighborhoods, socio-economic levels, racial divides and ethnic lines … everybody was fragmented and polarized. Everybody hated one another. The tension in the air, the hatred, the constant rancor ... that's when security guards and police started showing up in schools on a regular basis. Because that's when guns started showing up in schools.

After Martin Luther King, riots broke out in Pittsburgh. I distinctly remember the National Guard on my street. Low-flying helicopters overhead. A curfew. Riots nearby. All too close to home, man, way too close to home.

So, if you were young and impressionable, believe me, it all made an impression. Big time.

It was an intense period. It's a wonder we lived through it. Some didn't.

And just when things were beginning to look hopeful again, bam, Bobby Kennedy was shot down. And you couldn't help but think, "All right, so that's how it's going to be. Every time somebody comes along who looks like a leader, they get shot down."

It took years for the country to heal from the turmoil of those times, from Vietnam, and from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. You would think we, as a society, would have learned some lessons. That's why it was so disappointing to some of us that the Bush administration would so carelessly start another disastrous war in a distant foreign land. That's why it's been so depressing to see the harsh divides of red-blue ideology in recent years.

The country is at another tipping point. We cannot go back to the way things were on April 4, 1968.

Recommended reading: Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman's "The last sermon, Memphis, April 3, 1968"

Remarks by Sen. Barack Obama on Martin Luther King Jr.

Remarks by Sen. John McCain on Martin Luther King Jr.

(we haven't come across remarks from Hillary)