Press "Enter" to skip to content

Martin Luther King, San Francisco, 1968

So we all take a day off, on the off chance we have a job to take off from, to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday and ponder the meaning of his life. The in-school discussion, if there is one about King, will emphasize his commitment to non-violence as a tactic to achieve full citizenship for black Americans at a time when black Americans, and poor people generally, are being violently squeezed by a social-economic system that no longer needs them.

Memorial editorials will leave out King’s commitment to economic justice as he's portrayed as a real nice guy who always turned the other cheek.

King, when he was alive, was routinely denounced in the mainstream media as a Com-dupe, a libel fed the media by the FBI, these days rehabbed by the Democrats as an heroic, a-political police agency who will slay the Orange Monster and his cult-brained followers.

Murdered just as he became outspokenly critical of the War on Vietnam, American imperialism generally, and the multi-ethnic, color-blind class structure of poverty, King is remembered these days as the guy who made Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell possible.

I was there, a foot soldier on the integrationist Bay Area left when King was besieged from all directions, denounced practically on a daily basis in the media of the 1960s, and written off by much of the left for his non-violent strategies and ridiculed for his Christianity. But King was among the very bravest figures of those low times, beginning every day without police protection for himself and his family, not knowing if he or his wife and children would survive the day.

The day after King was finally murdered, I was leafletting on Market Street for a protest lamenting King's assassination when a young guy walked up and started screaming vile insults at me and about how happy he was that King was dead. I thought I was going to have to fight the great white knight before he walked away. That guy was the only negative on the whole day. Everyone else who took a leaflet or stopped to talk was sympathetic and shocked at King's murder. But I still remember that one encounter as emblematic of '68, and hadn't experienced anything like it since until these Tiki Torch clowns, emboldened by the Trump election, started popping up around the country.

San Francisco back in the day was not at all the liberal bastion it has since become. Sort of. The City was strictly, militantly segregated up through the 1970s, and the cops routinely busted gay bars just for the hell of it.

I have vivid memories of King's assassination. My daughter had just been born at Kaiser Hospital in San Francisco. Her delivery doctor was barefoot and wore a flower behind his ear. I remember feeling that I should probably check his credentials. I was driving a cab, writing bad poetry and working to overthrow the government for all the reasons King himself perfectly articulated — the insane war on Vietnam at the expense of home front spending.

My brother had just gotten out of the federal penitentiary at Lompoc for refusing to register for the draft. He was the first guy in the state to refuse to register and had been packed off in '64. Just as he was leaving prison, my cousin, sentenced out of Arizona, was arriving at Lompoc on the same charges that had locked up my brother. Cousin Jim was the first guy in Arizona ever to get prison time for refusing to register. In fact, the judge tacked on a year in the AZ nuthouse to cuz's three-year sentence because the judge thought cuz's opposition to the War on Vietnam was crazy. Years later, as a public defender here in Mendo, DA Massini always referred to James Roland Esq as “The Felon.” (He'd received one of those Jimmy Carter blanket pardons setting aside his felony conviction.

I was watching the news when the announcements that King had been shot began. Later that night, Yellow Cab Dispatch warned us to stay out of Hunter's Point and the Fillmore District because men were shooting at cab top lights. I tried to find confirmation that this was true but never did. No driver I knew had had it happen to him.

But it was a bad time generally in San Francisco with lots of violent street crime and hard drugs mowing down acres of flower children, hastening the “back-to-the-land” movement that would form the Mendocino County we see around us today.

I had a wife and two small children and no money. But cab driving, in the San Francisco of 1968, could pay the bills out of the cash it generated, and I “managed” the slum apartment building we lived in at 925 Sacramento at the mouth of the Stockton Tunnel, perhaps the noisiest residential address in the world, with horns honking and idiot shrieks emanating from the tunnel's echo chamber round-the-clock. I got a free apartment in return for my management, which consisted of doing absolutely nothing because rents were mailed directly to Coldwell Banker. The Nude Girl On A Swing was our immediate neighbor. She sailed out of the ceiling naked every night over a sea of upturned male faces at a North Beach nightclub. Her act was a big draw, and more evidence that the male species is beyond pathetic. She was also a junkie whose dopehead boyfriend threatened to kill me one night when I stopped him from beating her up. The next morning they smiled and waved at me as if nothing had happened the night before.

We headed north, too, soon after, but not “back to the land,” just to get the hell outta the city and, purely by accident, landed in Boonville.

Here's an excerpt from the MLK speech that probably got him killed, the last straw for the guardians of a corrupt system. You’re unlikely to hear it repeated at the occasions memorializing him:

“I should make it clear that while I have tried to give a voice to the voiceless on Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about our troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor. Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours. There is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter the struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing. The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy — and laymen — concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.”

— Martin Luther King Jr., April 1967

* * *

MARSHALL FRADY’S MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr.: A Life, Penguin edition. (By far the best bio of King.)


  1. Jonah Raskin January 19, 2023

    Wonderful piece
    I appreciate the personal history and the tribute to King.

  2. Donald Cruser January 19, 2023

    I had the pleasure of hearing Doctor King give a speech at my college back in 1968. My first impressions were of how different he was in person from the image of him that was presented in mass media. The evening news generally played short clips of him speaking at his most emotional moments that made him appear as an out of control rabble rouser. In person he was just the opposite: fully in control, articulate, logical, and brilliant. There is no doubt that he went too far when he criticized our military war effort in Vietnam and that is why he was killed. In another famous argument he pointed out the obvious that money spent on weapons is money taken away from the impoverished citizens of the homeland. Hitting people in the wallet is always a dangerous thing to do. Ironically, King’s statements would be just as valid today as then, with more evidence to back them up. The history of my lifetime has been dominated by US involvement in foreign wars thousands of miles from home, costing trillions of dollars, with nothing to show for it in the end. Ukraine is nothing different. It is all the consequence of a profit making war machine that has become an unstoppable economic force. Our elected representatives just gave the pentagon close to 40 billion dollars more than they asked for while we are up against our 30 trillion dollar debt. Unfortunately, King was not here when we needed him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *