The Police Riot and the Tape Recorders — a Memoir

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MLK this hour of history
This hour of history – The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Scene: Calm on the streets the Night Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was Shot

“Dr. King’s been shot!” came the shout to the large gathering of youth and adult advisors in the church recreation room fifty years ago on April 4, 1968. 

Several hundred teenagers from Decatur’s public housing (“the projects”) were doing their normal thing after Teen Town when Melvin’s shout from the stairwell changed everything. “Dr. King’s been shot! Dr. King’s been shot!”

Teen Town was an outreach program of First Presbyterian in downtown Decatur, Illinois and the Decatur Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Charles Young of OE., a former Chicago gang member, and I, the 26 year old Assistant Pastor of First Presbyterian, oversaw the program with a cadre of adult volunteers.

The room was hot.  What do do?

We quickly rounded up tape recorders, organized the kids into small groups, and gave each group a tape recorder to speak their hearts and minds to anyone who might listen. There was anger –“I told you the m—-fs would kill him! Malcom’s next!” (“Malcolm” was Malcolm X.) There was shock. There were tears. There was shouting. But there was no violence in Decatur that night. A young reporter for the Decatur Herald paid credit to Teen Town’s importance to the larger community. We shared the tapes with the city authorities, the Superintendent of Schools and teachers, and the Decatur Chief of Police as a way of deepening the majority white population’s education in blackness.

Scene: The Police Riot on the Church Parking Lot and the Kerner Commission Report

Photo of members of the Kerner Commission with President Johnson.
http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.08051
Some Kerner Commission members with President Lyndon Baines johnson (1967)

Not long after the night one might have expected an “urban disturbance,” the same site became a different scene. Two kids came to fist-a-cuffs just after Teen Town’s 10:00 p.m. closing time. Again a voice yelled news to the lower-level recreation room: “There’s a fight outside!” We sent Melvin upstairs to stop the fight. Moments later we saw the racially-inspired police violence reported by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission) erupting on the church parking lot: Melvin in a choke-hold behind the paddy wagon, billy clubs flying, white cops spraying mace into the crowd, Teen Town teenagers whose only crime was that they were black running for their lives.

Forty store windows were broken out that night. The church and chief of police went toe-to-toe on the front page of the Decatur Herald. Facing loud cries to shut down the program, the church board voted unanimously to stand behind Teen Town and our partnership with the Office of Economic Opportunity.

First Presbyterian Church was itself a kind of death and resurrection. Before 1953 it was known as “Power’s Towers” referencing Jack Powers, the CEO of the Staley corporation. I was a place of white privilege and power whose members worship Sunday morning and went out to rule the city for another week. By the early ’50s its membership had shrunk to less than an unsustainable membership of less than a hundred. Then something happened that transformed a dying church into a beacon of racial justice and peacemaking.

In 1953 First Church’s new minister, Rev. Jay Logan, and an African American foundry worker walked the short distance from the church to the YWCA across the street to sit-in at the YWCA segregated lunch counter. By the time I arrived in 1967, First Presbyterian had become a vibrant 1200 member multi-racial congregation. It grew because two disciples of Jesus put their feet and rumps where their mouths were, followed by a great cloud of witnesses who dared to do the same.

In this tumultuous time of wrestling with white privilege and choke holds, the Kerner Commission conclusion that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal,” and the commission’s call for “programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems” seem prophetic.

Today I’m remembering Jay Logan, and Ruling Elders Jim Smith, Art Tate, Ken Varney, Larry Baer, and Ralph Johnson who quickly gathered the tape recorders five decades ago, and weeks later bore witness to their faith in the midst of a police riot… without flinching.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 22, 2020.

“Hello, NSA”

“Hello. NSA?” “Hello, CIA.“ “Hello, Homeland Security.” “Hello, whoever you are, listening in on my phone conversations.”

I’m on the phone with the Church Administrator of the little church I serve. A loud whining noise suddenly over-rides her voice. I try to talk with her; she keeps talking as though everything is fine. I hang up and call again. She wonders what happened. I tell her. “It’s the NSA,” she says. We both laugh.

But it’s no laughing matter.

The timing of the unexplained noise on the phone coincided with arrival of an email from a JFK assassination researcher who is providing overnight lodging for another critic of the Warren Commission Report, Judyth Vary Baker. Judyth is Lee Harvey Oswald’s former lover, controversial author of Me and Lee: How I Came to Love and Lose Lee Harvey Oswald. Ms. Baker makes the case that President Kennedy was assassinated by a right-wing, anti-Castro, Mafia-linked group within the CIA.

Judyth is in town this week promoting her latest book, David Ferrie: Mafia Pilot, Participant in Anti-Castro Bioweapon Plot, Friend of Lee Harvey Oswald and Key to the JFK Assassination. David Ferrie is the shadowy figure with whom Judyth worked in 1963 in a New Orleans cancer research lab she claims was a covert project of the CIA.

At the request of her publisher, my friend here in Chaska approached several bookstores, a church, and a senior citizens center. One of the bookstores, one of America’s largest, originally said yes, but the next day reported back that “it wouldn’t work out.” An event at a church was scheduled, but was cancelled at the last minute because of a scheduling conflict.

“Hello, NSA.” “Hello, CIA.” Hello, somebody. Someone is listening in. Someone who doesn’t want the rest of us listening to the likes of Judyth Vary Baker or reading the allegations about David Ferrie and the connection between the anti-Castro, Mafia-linked cabal within the CIA.

Or maybe no one is listening in and my friend and I are making it all up. Maybe there is some other reason for the noise I’d never heard before on my phone. It’s just a strange coincidence that the noise happened while the email was arriving on my MacBook Air. It’s coincidence that the phones of people I called the rest of the day did not ring but showed as voicemails without messages, a new wrinkle in their experience and mine. It’s coincidence that my computer and those of several others I had emailed or phoned began to behave as though they needed the Geek Squad or Prozac.

Although I’ve never asked to see it, I’m confident that the FBI has a file on me, and, if they do, I’m rather proud of it. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., a group in Decatur, Illinois identifies a picture of King’s alleged assassin as the man who’d shown up out-of-the-blue while a crowd of youth was still on the church parking lot following the dismissal of that night’s youth outreach program.

The FBI shows each of us three photographs, asking if we can identify the man  we met. Each of us, interviewed separately, identifies one of the three. The picture matches the photograph of James Earl Ray on the cover of Life magazine.

A cub reporter who gets wind of the story publishes a column in The Decatur Herald. The Chicago Sun-Times publishes a story on its front page. Right-hand column. Right there in black and white. The headline reads something like “King Assassin Spotted in Decatur, Illinois.” Several of us are quoted in both articles.

Years later, researchers search the files of the Decatur Herald and the Chicago Sun-Times for the stories. They’re not there. There is no evidence that the stories were ever published.

“Good night, NSA.” “Good night, CIA.” “Good night, FBI.” “Good night, Judyth.”

“Hello, Patriot Act.”

“Good-bye Constitution; good-bye Republic.”

“Kyrie Eleison!”

MLK Assassination: A Memory

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Forty-four years ago today the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Read this morning’s Washington Post story.I was with about 200 teenagers from “the projects” in Decatur, Illinois when the news broke. First Presbyterian Church and the Office of Economic Opportunity had partnered to create a youth program at the church. Charles Johnson, a former Blackstone Ranger from Chicago, and I (the 29-year-old Assistant Pastor) jointly administered the program.

We were in the church basement when the voice rang out from the steps, “Dr. King’s been shot! Dr. King’s been shot!” The room was filled with shock and anger. Some of the kids preferred Malcolm X to Dr. King, but on that night it didn’t matter. The room was united, overwhelmed by tragedy, another violent act of racial hatred.

Dr. King’s assassination came two months after the release of the report of the President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the “Kerner Commission”) that had concluded:

Our nation Is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

The conclusion of the Kerner Report about police violence had been demonstrated on the church parking lot two weeks before Dr. King’s assassination. On that night Decatur police officers, without warning, had stormed into the crowd of black kids in the church parking lot at the end of the evening program. They came waving billy clubs and spraying mace. I was there. I saw it. Forty store windows in downtown Decatur were broken out that night. A number of the kids were arrested.

While the Decatur Chief of Police and I squared off with our different accounts of the events on the front page of The Decatur Herald, the board of First Presbyterian Church, which included a prominent sitting Judge, stood united and firm. We would not close the program, as the Chief was demanding.

First Presbyterian Church, Decatur, IL

When the voice announced that Dr. King had been shot, the adult leaders of the program had reason to fear the worst. Quickly we rounded up tape recorders. We made an announcement inviting the kids into smaller circles, spread out throughout the church building, that would give each and all of them time to talk.  We announced that, in light of what had happened two weeks before, we wanted their voices to be heard by the Chief, the Mayor, and the members of the Decatur City Council. We were all outraged; the feelings needed to be spoken and shared.There was no violence in Decatur that night. There was no riot.

The tapes were edited and played for the city officials.

The program continued without further interruption.

The Spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. prevailed. And it still does.