Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I remember the first time I heard his name; I was looking down the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun that was being held by a guy between six and twelve years older than I was. I remember thinking how black that gun was and wondering why it was wrapped with dirty, ragged tape.
“The tensions are not between the races, but between the forces of justice and injustice; between the forces of light and darkness.”~ Martin Luther King JR.
I was trying to get home without running into anyone. I had just left school, Ryerson elementary. I was in full sprint and had stepped off the curb when a car screeched to a halt in front of me. My heart skipped a beat, knowing that if I had taken two steps, instead of one -off that curb, I would have painted the hood of their car. I froze.
An ugly looking blunt sawed-off shotgun was stuck out the back window and was pointed at my abdomen. I took a step back. I couldn’t escape; the car and the gun, I had nowhere to escape to, they had blocked me in. I was to close. I went out of my way to avoid being trapped, to dodge getting within arm’s length, of anyone. To be this close, meant I wasn’t in control. Where I stood, I knew that bullet had changed the length of my arms. If I ran I was dead. If I stood here I was dead. I felt dead.
(I am cleaning up the dialogue so I can post it here)
The guy in the front passenger seat spat out, “Shoot her, so we can get outta here.”
“Wait! Why are you shooting me?”
“You know, just shoot her.”
The kid in the back seat was holding a gun, he was sweating, we made eye contact, and he looked away.
“Wait! You can shoot me- after you tell me why” I said as I made eye contact with the eyes connected to that gun.
A steady disembodied voice, called out, “Shoot her!”
The guy with the gun said. ”Naw, I’ll tell her.”
I felt the seconds pass. I could see and taste the thick, black smoke rising above the houses to my left. I heard the sound of the corner store’s screen door open behind me, it creaked then slammed as someone ran back inside; whatever they were saying was lost in the pounding of my heart.
I focused on the three guys in the back of the car; there were three more in the front. They were excited, talking fast, yelling. “Shoot her!” I kept my focus on the kid in the back seat. The one with the gun, it was heavy in his hand, I saw the tape on the gun, on his wrist. He pointed it down at the cracked sidewalk. I exhaled.
The guy in the front seat raised his hand and flipped it, everyone went silent, then he said, “Okay- we killn’ you. You killed King’
“Who is that?”
“Don’t be stupid, ya know him! You killed him!” one of the guys in the front passenger seat sneered, “Shoot ‘er!”
I snorted and took a stance as if they didn’t scare me. I loosened my hold on my schoolbooks; relaxed my body, and then I took a step sideways. That gave me a better look at the front seat of the car, besides taking me one step further away from that gun. I considered a run towards the front of their car. Except, if that guy in the back seat decided to raise that gun up and pull the trigger, I knew, I couldn’t outrun a bullet. If I ran I would be a moving target. I had a chance if I could get their minds off that gun, maybe, just maybe I can move that target off my stomach. I asked, “How could I kill him? I don’t know him!”
“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”~Martin Luther King JR.
“He don’t know you,” he gestured to the guy behind him, “He’ll kill you.” Front passenger seat guy laughed, the rest of the guys followed suit and laughed, except for the kid in back with the gun. He was as scared as I was.
“I didn’ kill anyone. Wait! Tell me who he is”
“Who is Martin Luther King, what’d he do? Who is he? Why are ya trying to kill me in his name?”
The guy in the backseat touched the back of the front passenger seat with the gun. “She don’ know him, I don’ like dis man. Let her go.”
“Aw! Come on! We is here t’kill a….”
“I thought ya wanted to kill King’s killer.” I said.
Someone else said, “This ain’t fun nomo. -Listen kid ya go find out who King is and we gonna be driving around. When we come back u dead-if we see ya. Gonna be no talkin. Got it!”
“It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it.”~ Martin Luther King JR
They attempted to squeal their wheels as they took off; instead, they left a trail of black smoke and tire marks. Before the car pulled fully away from me, I sprinted around the back of the car took a right at the corner and slipped into my house, where my parents were staring at the television. I could hear the warnings to stay indoors due to the riots. Black smoke was settling in the alley. Sirens, screaming, horns were honking, shots sounded.
I was born and raised a couple of miles from the apartment building where Martin Luther King, moved into as a protest. That area was burning. My neighborhood was burning. And this was just the start.
“The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility.” ~ Martin Luther King JR
What I learned later that day, from my father, was that, Martin Luther King was a peaceful man, who wanted everyone to be equal all the violence in his name didn’t make any sense. Not then. Not now.