Holy Week: Resurrection
Part 8: Whoever believes in him shall not perish
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Reporter: The Poor People’s Campaign is more than six weeks old now. And the poor that Dr. Martin Luther King wanted to bring to Washington have come. The Blacks, the whites, the Puerto Ricans, the Mexican Americans, and Indians. More than 3,000 of them have come from across the country. And as Dr. King had dreamed, they built a shantytown to expose the nation’s shame. They call it Resurrection City.
(Group singing: “… This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine …”)
Vann R. Newkirk II: The thing people seem to remember best about Resurrection City is the rain.
(Group singing: “… Lord, which side are you on? Well, you can tell that God above …”)
Newkirk: A month after King was killed, Ralph David Abernathy and Coretta Scott King followed through with their promise to continue his plan. Thousands of people came to D.C. People took buses and even mule carts up from Mississippi and Alabama. From Memphis, the Invaders, the last group to meet with King, sent their own delegation. John Burl Smith didn’t make it, but one of his deputies, a man called Sweet Willie Wine, went instead.
Sweet Willie Wine: I brought a militant group here. We have become nonviolent to a certain extent. But don’t mean just because he’s dead that it’s going to stop progress. It won’t stop me from thinking as I think. Because each time these people die—these leaders that is going to help, the poor people die—you know it makes me that much more mad, and makes me go out to recruit more people for my purposes.
Newkirk: The people started building shacks and tents on the National Mall on Mother’s Day, and they were ready for the heat of May and June in D.C. But then one day, it just started raining, and it didn’t stop.
Matthew Nimetz: There was mud and storms and the little kids there. And it was a real mess.
Newkirk: Matthew Nimetz was one of the staffers the White House named as a liaison to Resurrection City. He was the young guy in the White House. He’d done everything from trying to squash reports for President Johnson to organizing the meeting with civil-rights leaders the day after King was killed. So then he got this job.
Nimetz: We knew that these people were arriving, and we got reports they were coming, and there were these mules, and where would the mules go? I had to deal with the mules and try to find a farm for them, you know.
Newkirk: When King was alive, President Johnson had opposed his plan to stage the Poor People’s Campaign. The White House still didn’t love the idea after his death. They had just worked magic to pass the Fair Housing Act, against serious opposition. But the people in Resurrection City were challenging the president, demanding more—always more.
Resurrection City speaker: We’re here because there’s a lot of problems that has to be dealt with in this country. We’re here because little children are standing around in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia poverty-stricken, without food to eat. We’re here because most of the Black people in those states do not have adequate housing.They do not have education. That’s why we’re here. [Applause.]
Newkirk: The purpose of Resurrection City was in the name. If Black folks couldn’t bring back King, the man, then they could maybe bring back his spirit. They wanted to reiterate his call to transform America. They wanted to influence the presidential election and find a leader who could continue Johnson’s civil-rights legacy. When people took their mule carts up from the South in May, they hoped that this would be a new beginning.
Ralph David Abernathy: We are the people who come up out of great trials and tribulations. The death of Martin Luther King could not stop us. I am here to tell you today that certainly nothing that the Congress of the United States of America, and the policemen and the National Guard, or any other force can do here in Washington will stop us, because we have made up in our mind that we’re going to let nobody turn us around.
Newkirk: But that hope proved fleeting.
Harry Reasoner (journalist): A new white backlash is plainly visible in the country. The lead story in today’s Wall Street Journal is headed, “Ghetto Violence Brings Hardening of Attitudes Toward Negro Gains.”
Charles Kuralt (journalist): CBS News commissioned a poll, which attempted to measure racial attitudes in the United States statistically.
Newkirk: Shortly after the signing of the Fair Housing Act, journalists and pollsters tried to assess just how much the riots had moved white attitudes about civil rights and racial equality. CBS reported on a poll conducted during the Poor People’s Campaign.
Reporter: Fourteen percent of whites now believe that housing for Negro families in all-white communities is a good idea.
Reporter: Just about half of whites in our survey said the Negro has not made more progress because he has not worked hard enough. Only 15 percent blame discrimination. Some had no opinion.
Newkirk: The most-pronounced shifts in white opinions had come, unsurprisingly, on the matter of riots.
Hal Walker (journalist): More than a third of whites say that when a riot occurs, it would be a good idea for police to shoot one or two rioters as examples to the rest.
Man 1: Shoot to kill. If they’re old enough to violate laws, shoot ’em. If it’s my own kid, I’d say shoot them. He deserves it. He should obey laws. There’s laws for us. There’s laws for Negroes. Let them start obeying them.
Man 2: There was a riot. They had signs all over—soul brother—made no difference. They robbed, raped, plundered, looted their own people.
Woman 1: They should be shot. That’s the only way we can stop them.
Newkirk: It was not an encouraging sign as a massive event like the Poor People’s Campaign was being held in Washington D.C., a city where riots had just recently erupted. What was worse, although Abernathy and the movement were recommitted to nonviolence, the majority of white folks opposed even peaceful protest.
Walker: We found when it comes to ways for the Negro to protest for what he wants, most whites are against Negro picketing or boycotting. In fact against anything other than holding a protest meeting.
Newkirk: Things were already just as bad on the political front.
Richard Nixon: When a nation with the greatest tradition of the rule of law is torn apart by lawlessness …
Newkirk: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had been trying to out “law and order” each other to win the Republican nomination for president.
Nixon: … then I say it’s time for new leadership in the United States of America.
Ronald Reagan: The government’s function is to protect society from the lawbreaker and not the other way around.
Newkirk: George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, was running as a third-party candidate and had been holding rallies as far north as Maryland and New York.
George Wallace: If you go out of this building tonight and somebody knocks you in the head, the person who knocks you in the head is out of jail before you get to the hospital. And on Monday morning, they will try the policeman. [Applause.]
Newkirk: In the Democratic primary, Black voters had latched on to the hope of electing Robert F. Kennedy. He had criticized the administration for not doing enough to implement the Kerner Commission’s recommendations. His wife, Ethel Kennedy, marched with Coretta Scott King during the Poor People’s Campaign. But then, just after winning the California primary, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.
Andy West (journalist): Senator Kennedy has been shot. Is that possible? Is that possible? Is it possible, ladies and gentlemen? It is possible he has. Not only Senator Kennedy—oh, my God—Senator Kennedy has been shot.
Newkirk: Kennedy’s funeral procession stopped by Resurrection City on the way to burying him at Arlington Cemetery. A little more than three weeks after the Poor People’s Campaign first broke ground on the National Mall, they vowed to keep going, even as trash piled up and sewage ran into the mud in the shanties they built. But it was all just blow after blow. And the rain kept coming down.
C. Gerald Fraser (journalist): There is little doubt that the campaign has lost its momentum. Instead, the organization has been bogged down with problems overrunning Resurrection City, a task that has proved larger than most staffers would have believed.
Newkirk: Two weeks after that, their permit to stage the demonstration expired. The authorities shut Resurrection City down.
Matthew Nimetz: People like me were sympathetic, but we were realists. We knew we couldn’t change the country immediately. And then, in fact, things were going the wrong way.
Newkirk: There were not a whole lot of happy endings for Resurrection City. People went home exhausted, both from weeks of life in the tents and from the emotional letdown of tragedy after tragedy.
Some of them went back to Chicago, to Pittsburgh, to Baltimore, to neighborhoods and districts where police were still on edge, waiting for the next wave of riots. They took trains and planes and buses down south, where old Jim Crow was still fighting his best to hold on. They went to Memphis, where the Invaders were still trying their best to hold on to revolution. They went back to homes in D.C., walking past ruins where whole blocks used to be.
Even in real time, it all felt like a conclusion, like the end of a chapter of American history. But for the people leaving Resurrection City, and for the communities they went back to, trauma and grief didn’t have such neat endings, if they ended at all.
Newkirk: Part 8: “Resurrection.”
Newkirk: Last fall, John Burl Smith drove us out to his sister’s home, near Memphis. He likes to talk with both of his hands while driving, so I was already happy to be there. I was even happier when he opened the door and introduced me to his 102-year-old mother, Willie Mae Smith-Gray.
John Burl Smith: Hey, sweetheart.
Willie Mae Smith-Gray: I was worried about you.
Burl Smith: I’m doing fine. You’re my hero. [Laughter.] So I tell everybody about you. This is Vann.
Burl Smith: Vann.
Burl Smith: Vann, Vann …
Newkirk: Yes, ma’am.
Burl Smith: Like Tommy’s daughter. Vann. V-A-N
Newkirk: Nice to meet you.
Burl Smith: And this is Ethan.
Smith-Gray: Nice to meet him.
Newkirk: It’s been almost 55 years since John and the Invaders had their last meeting with Martin Luther King in room 306. I’d been talking to John for months about that meeting, but I want to know more about those 55 years, about what he carries with him, even now.
Burl Smith: Oh, let me get that.
Newkirk: John and I pulled some chairs into a back bedroom and talked.
Newkirk: I’m curious. Does this change the mission for the Invaders in the time after the assassination? You had a vision of the future for yourselves. What do you do next?
Burl Smith: Well … there were several events that happened.
Newkirk: There certainly were several events. A week after King’s funeral, the Memphis sanitation workers had finally gotten recognition by the city as a union, and they went back to work. John and his comrades sent a delegation up to D.C. for the Poor People’s Campaign, but they still tried to keep Black Power alive in Memphis. They were working with anti-poverty programs, giving out school lunches and breakfasts. John saw himself as a protector for Black kids around the city. He didn’t live too far from Carver High School, where a lot of the young Invaders were enrolled.
Burl Smith: The kids were being thrown out of school for wearing afros and Afro-centric dress, demanding Black history in their classes and Black books in the library and things like that. And they were suspending kids for that.
Newkirk: One day, John says he and the Invaders were visiting Carver to recruit kids for a local Black-theater program. Then they heard a commotion coming from the general-purpose room.
Burl Smith: And this particular day, they pulled the fire alarm and emptied the school. But the principal called the police. And when the police came, they were chasing the kids with blackjacks and things like that. And one of the police there recognized me as an Invader, and they arrested me.
Newkirk: Did you have the Invader jacket on?
Burl Smith: No. They arrested me for disorderly conduct.
Newkirk: The FBI’s COINTELPRO program was watching the indictment closely. They were keeping tabs on the Invaders, sabotaging them, passing intel to sympathetic reporters. Seeing John get caught up on those charges was mission accomplished.
Newkirk: I looked at the COINTELPRO report from then and they said you incited a riot. They said there were multiple fire bombings that you’d been involved in and that you’d had multiple marijuana parties at your apartment.
Burl Smith: Now, that might be the only thing that’s true in all of that, because we did party out and it was known—but, you know, it’s marijuana. [Laughs.]
Newkirk: Around the same time Resurrection City was fully up and running, John was facing indictment. What’s more, after Congress slipped a new anti-riot law into the Fair Housing Act, Tennessee passed its own similar law. They established a five-year minimum sentence for setting fires and made inciting riots a felony. In essence, John became a test case for America’s newest crackdown on Black unrest.
Burl Smith: And the legislature met in July. And in September, the grand jury here in Shelby County indicted me for participating in a riot and trespassing in a public school, which were not even laws when this happened.
Newkirk: The only eyewitness testimony of any physical wrongdoing was a single account of one of John’s comrades throwing a bottle at an officer. There were no serious injuries. The scene that everyone described at Carver seems like it barely fit the definition of a real “riot” at all. But to the jurors, under the new state riot law, John became an example.
Burl Smith: That was the extent of it. But I did five years for that.
Newkirk: While John Burl Smith was on trial, the world changed. Going into the Republican National Convention, Richard Nixon was the front-runner. But two factions inside the party tried to find delegates and maybe even join together to stop him. At the convention, Maryland’s Governor, Spiro Agnew, sent his delegates to Nixon and helped him win. Agnew had been a political nobody until he turned against civil-rights leaders in Baltimore. Now he was giving Nixon’s nomination speech.
Spiro Agnew: When a nation is in crisis and history speaks firmly to that nation, it needs a man to match the times. You don’t create such a man. You don’t discover such a man. You recognize such a man, the one whom all America will recognize as a man whose time has come—the man for 1968, the honorable Richard M. Nixon.
Nixon: All right. Thank you very much.
Newkirk: Agnew had become a voice of a kind of white backlash. He could knit together suburban moderates and southern conservatives. So when it came time for Nixon to pick a running mate, Nixon picked the nobody.
Reporter: Conservative Republicans generally applauded the choice. Liberals were dismayed.
Newkirk: The ticket was a clear signal to Black voters. The Baltimore Afro-American, the biggest Black paper in Maryland, understood that Agnew’s appeal wasn’t in policy or achievements, but his rhetoric in the face of Black protest.
Reporter: Mr. Agnew’s chief claims to fame are that he became governor of Maryland as the lesser of two evils and has proven his ability to insult Black leaders.
Newkirk: For white Americans, the Nixon-Agnew ticket had a pitch that worked. In one of his most famous ads, there are images of cities burning, of police confronting rioters in the street. And there’s some music.
Nixon: Let us recognize that the first civil right of every American is to be free from domestic violence. So I pledge to you, we shall have order in the United States.
Newkirk: By the end of 1968, the optimism of Resurrection City seemed like a relic of a forgotten age. Nixon won the election, of course. You know that. Spiro Agnew became the vice president and became Nixon’s attack dog.
Agnew: You cannot have justice. You cannot have change without order.
Newkirk: Under Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO continued, focusing more on disrupting Black revolutionary groups.
Reporter: State’s attorneys police arrived at Fred Hampton’s West Side apartment, half a block from Panther headquarters, at 4:45 this morning.
Newkirk: On December 4, 1969, a group of law-enforcement officers, with the FBI’s backing, assassinated the Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in his sleep.
Reporter: Hampton’s body was found in bed.
Newkirk: Hampton’s lawyer, Flint Taylor, understood this as a clear proclamation from the government.
Flint Taylor: … to send the message to all those young folks, whether they be Black or white, who wanted to get involved in the struggle: We’ll kill you in your bed.
Newkirk: Under Nixon, the Fair Housing Act was supposed to go into full effect. He even supported the law on the campaign trail. But once in office, he opposed enforcement, especially in America’s mostly white suburbs. He said that he was against forced integration.
In D.C., the riots remade reality. The city became a model for everything happening in Nixon’s America. White folks fled for the suburbs where integration never really came.
The law and order that Nixon promised came with the first War on Drugs. All the while, the burned shells of buildings from ’68 were never rebuilt. Walking and driving past them in Cardozo, Theophus Brooks only felt regret.
Theophus Brooks: We used to joke: “Why don’t we go downtown or Connecticut Avenue? We aren’t going down there.” You weren’t going down there, right? But it was the thing where, as young people, we thinking about the burning, the excitement, stealing stuff. That’s what’s on everyone’s mind—what can we get? I’m going home and I don’t have nothin’. I’m mad.
Newkirk: Do you think we missed an opportunity to do something then, in ’68?
Brooks: Yeah, we could have really banded together. You know what? Let me tell you something. I’m glad you said that. As close as we were, especially in this city, we could have made a big difference.
Newkirk: But there were people who did come together to try and do something. Even though the organization of SNCC was falling apart, a lot of the old organizers were still in D.C. They still had influence, especially cultural influence. Black people were calling themselves Black for the first time, partly because of the Black Power slogan. Young people were wearing afros, adopting Black-revolutionary fashion. The way SNCC and other radical organizations talked about the struggle became mainstream. The SNCC folks in D.C. had an opportunity, and they knew a guy.
Tony Gittens: There was this organization called African American Resources, and it was Courtland and Charlie, Marvin and some other people, and they asked me if I would be on the board.
Newkirk: Tony Gittens graduated from Howard a month after the riots. Around the same time, a group of SNCC veterans started a bookstore, the Drum and Spear. Tony was friends with a lot of them. He’d worked for the school newspaper. He didn’t have a job. So they named him the operator of the Drum and Spear.
Gittens: They were looking for somebody to do it and they threw me the keys, and that was how I became the manager of the bookstore.
Newkirk: It was a hard turn for Tony, after going down south to register voters and leading campus protests and then witnessing the rebellion on 14th Street. But for him—for all of them—it also sounds like it was therapy. They were finally able to settle down and build something. They had a radio show. They started a school. They had a press. The bookstore was located near 14th and U, near Cardozo. It gave them a chance to make beauty in a place that had seen heartbreak.
But for some Washingtonians, that kind of beauty never returned. Vanessa Lawson’s family was still waiting to hear any news about her brother Vincent. Vincent went out the night after King was killed, looting Morton’s department store to get his mother some stockings, and had never come back.
Weeks passed. Then months. Then years. Still, Vanessa and her family heard nothing. Vanessa moved on from junior high and started taking the bus to high school.
Vanessa Lawson: And I tell you, it was more than once—twice for sure, could have been three or four times, but I acted on it twice—I would see somebody that looked like him and I’d get off the bus. I had to know for sure.
Newkirk: The private investigator the family hired to find Vincent had put the idea in her head that Vincent might be out there alive, with amnesia. She held on to that hope. The whole family did. It was even worse for them than if Vincent had died and they’d known. Vanessa’s grandmother walked the block by Morton’s week after week after week, hoping she might run into Vincent. She died a couple years later. Vanessa’s mother was hurting, and she drank to dull the pain. Every once in a while, when the morgue had an unidentified body, they called Vanessa’s father to take a look.
Lawson: My mom would be on pins and needles, and it was never him.
Newkirk: It was easy to fall into a kind of a stasis, a repetition—look for Vincent, hope, repeat—in the same buildings and on the same blocks. But then, in 1971, construction workers finally came to H Street to demolish part of the block that had burned. The workers had found a skeleton in the warehouse next to Morton’s. It had been years, and the body was beyond identification.
Lawson: But he had this medallion. My dad had bought us medallions. And both of our medallions said “V.L.”
Newkirk: They said “V.L.”
Lawson: My name is Vanessa Lawson. His was Vincent Lawson. And they both said said “V.L.” on them. He still had his.
Newkirk: When I visited Vanessa in her home outside D.C., she shared photos of her family, going back generations. One of her uncles was a Tuskegee Airman. She’s got pictures of the farm the family comes from in Virginia. She’s also got newspaper clippings of how Vincent’s story has been told in the news. In those stories, there’s not usually a lot about what happened to the family after they found Vincent’s body. Vanessa says they wanted to do things the right way: They wanted to do an autopsy, get a death certificate, take Vincent’s body and have a service.
Lawson: They had already had him cremated, so they cremated him and they didn’t even keep his ashes.
Newkirk: The city had already disposed of Vincent’s remains. They just threw him away.
Lawson: We didn’t have anything to work with. We didn’t have a memorial. We didn’t have his ashes. We never had anything. We didn’t have a gravesite, because there was no burial. We didn’t have a church service. There was nothing.
Newkirk: And then people from the city came by Vanessa’s mom’s place on East Capitol.
Lawson: Mayor Washington and his little entourage came to our house in the black limo. And these guys got out, and his little short, chunky self. And they were carrying this basket, you know, with all these flowers and ribbons. And they had literally bought us a turkey dinner. And he said he wanted to apologize.
Newkirk: He came to apologize.
Lawson: He came to apologize to my mom, and she was yelling at him saying, “You lied!” You know, “You told everybody—you told the world that those buildings were checked out before they were covered up. And it was a lie.”
Newkirk: The family was already spiraling, but Vanessa says it was like a double spiral. Her grandmother had just recently passed. Her mother was in bad shape.
Lawson: My mom was drinking a lot. My mom was working about six days straight and off for like three days. And on the three days I was like, “Hello? Hello? Remember me?” kind of thing, you know. “I’m still here. You still got a kid here.”
Newkirk: Vanessa’s parents had been divorced for years. Her father had his own family across town. Her brothers were in and out of her mother’s apartment, and her mother was in bad shape. Her drinking got worse and worse. Vanessa became her caretaker. She cooked and cleaned and took care of the place. Even in high school, she got a job downtown. Sometimes on weekends, Vanessa would stay with her father, to get away from stuff, just live like a normal teenager for a while. One weekend in the summer, she stayed with her dad until Monday and went to work from there.
Lawson: And I went to work July 23. I went to work and I went out at lunchtime, and when I came back with my little bookbag and stuff, I remember the white-lady supervisor—she came and she grabbed me.
Newkirk: Vanessa’s coworkers were crying and told her there was a family emergency. When her father came to pick her up, he’d been crying too. But he wouldn’t let her know what was going on. Vanessa made him pull the car over to tell her.
Lawson: And he says, “It’s your mother—she’s gone.” And he just started crying and you know. And he’s crying and crying, and I’m like, It’s my mother? What do you mean my mother? And he says, “She’s gone.” What you mean she’s gone? “She died.”
Newkirk: Vanessa’s mother died. It was another blow to the family, to Vanessa. But she says she couldn’t even feel sad about it. She was going into her senior year. Her mom knew somebody who was supposed to make her a prom dress for free. Vanessa needed her mother. She was angry at her mother for leaving.
Lawson: I was mad, mad, mad, mad at my mom. How could you do this to me? I’m going into my senior year in high school. You know, You’re missing so much. You know, Now you’re dead. You know, You just wanted to go be with him.
And I remember picking out the casket. I remember picking out the dress. I remember, you know, telling them, you know, how she liked her hair. I remember going to the viewing. I remember biting my lips so hard that it bled.
I never cried. I wasn’t in a crying mode.
Newkirk: She didn’t cry at all. Not for Vincent. Not for her mother. She just tried to keep going. To keep working. But then she got sick too.
Lawson: I got a cold and I couldn’t shake it. I couldn’t shake that common cold.
Newkirk: She started having breathing problems. Her dad made her take off work and check in at Providence Hospital. But the doctors didn’t believe that her main problem was physical.
Lawson: But I got diagnosed with emotional setback even though I was only 16, 17 years old. My body should have been able to fight it off before, way before it got to that point. But my resistance was so low.
Newkirk: She couldn’t shake it. And it got worse. Vanessa says her white-blood-cell levels dropped. They tried steroids. They gave her oxygen. They brought mental-health professionals. But she just wasn’t responding. But then, she says, one night one of the nuns from the hospital came into her room to talk to her.
Lawson: And I remember one night in particular, I just lay there on the bed.
It was somewhere late during the night and this lady came in to check on me. And she had on white with some red stripes on it, and she talked to me. I can’t tell you verbatim, but—I can’t even tell you how long this went on—but she started stroking my hair. She stroked my earlobes. My mother used to do that—my earlobes—all the time.
She grabbed my hand and she told me, “Your mom is sorry and she’s with your brother, and they’re both wanting you to get better. She wants you to do good. And she’s really sorry, and everything is gonna be okay.”
When she left I started crying. I think I cried the next 24 hours or something, and that’s what I needed to do. And when they called my dad the next day, everybody came and said, “What happened?” He says. “Who talked to you?” I said, “The lady that was here last night.” And he wanted to know who it was so he could thank her, you know, whatever. But, she didn’t exist.
Newkirk: Vanessa believes in Providence: the idea that things happen for a reason, that the things that happened to her happened to her for a reason. So does John Burl Smith. He ended up having to do two years in prison, at the Shelby County Penal Farm. But he says that his sentence saved him from the worse fates that came to lots of other Black radicals in the country.
John Burl Smith: They really hunted us out of existence. All the Black Power revolutionaries were either on the run, left the country, dead, or in jail.
Newkirk: While John was in prison, the Invaders disintegrated. With King dead, leadership went back to mostly antagonizing the SCLC and other groups in Memphis. One member of the Invaders was shot while attempting a robbery. Another was sent to prison for murder, and many others went to prison for other crimes. In other cities, Nixon waged war on the Panthers, and a lot of the people that John would’ve called comrades never made it home. But in prison, John found a counseling program that prepared inmates to go back out into the real world. He did so well that three years later they gave him a job as a counselor when he got out.
Burl Smith: And so when I got out in ’71, things have changed quite a bit, quite a bit. But because I got out with the job, I was able to pick my life up even better than it was before I went in. So as I said, in the grand scheme of things, I was saved and blessed. And so I’m on my third life now.
Newkirk: In his third life, John’s been studying history and how we tell the story of Black freedom in America. He’s particularly interested in how we tell the story of King, and what we got wrong about it.
Newkirk: What do you make of the fact that when King was killed, he was easily one of the most unpopular men in America? He didn’t poll, you know—in ’63 he was very popular, and every year since then, it lowered a little bit.
Burl Smith: Right.
Newkirk: In ’68, for favorability, he was like 60 to 70 percent unfavorable. He polled worse than the Vietnam War. [Laughs.] What do you make of the fact that after that assassination, some version of him is made to be an untouchable hero?
Burl Smith: Yeah.
Newkirk: How does that happen?
Burl Smith: Because he’s dead. He can’t do any more damage. When he was alive, he represented one of the greatest threats to white power in America.
Newkirk: Tony Gittens agrees with John. He believes that the fundamental questions about power in America were never really answered in the ’60s. The assassination in ’68 cut off a real debate, and the potential for revolution. Like John, Tony also believes that the image of King that is celebrated today is meant to keep people in place, instead of challenging things.
Tony Gittens: The American press ran to make him [Laughs.]—it was quite surprising; they made him the man who walked on water. Now, nobody was against Dr. King, but I remember that. And it was like King was the one; he was the man.
Newkirk: From Tony’s view, these sort of fundamental questions stopped being on the table for years after King’s death. He tried to keep them alive in his own work, doing what he could. That’s why he says he took notice in 2020, when people took to the streets again after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
Gittens: And there were all these young people marching down 16th Street, you know. And I watched it and I said, “I got to go. I got to go.” I walked down to 16th Street from one circle to the next, and there were all these people there.
But it was the same kind of feeling I had the night of Dr. King’s assassination out on Columbia Road and 14th Street. The same thing. I had to be there. I just had to be there. I did not want to miss this. I couldn’t. You know?
Newkirk: As it turns out, the launch of Apollo 6 did make the front page of The Washington Post on April 5, 1968. The article is pretty pessimistic. The launch was described as a setback in our race to go to the moon, as a waste of an expensive Saturn V rocket. We know now that it wasn’t really, that it actually showed how resilient the rocket was, and how problems could be controlled. But it’s interesting to think about a time when space was in front of us, when we didn’t know if its challenges were surmountable or if humans could ever reach the moon—when progress wasn’t guaranteed.
But that news item from the paper is swallowed up by other events. It’s a small column, sandwiched between news about President Johnson canceling his Hawaii trip, a photo of Martin Luther King, and an article about Spiro Agnew’s crackdown on Black protesters at Bowie State. April 5 wasn’t a day for space. It was a day for keeping our heads down and mourning.
Vanessa Lawson Dixon has clippings from the Post from that day in a scrapbook on her kitchen table. They’re part of the constellation of papers and pictures she keeps to remember Vincent.
Lawson: So this little boy right here is my nephew. This boy looks 90 percent like Vincent.
Newkirk and Ethan Brooks [together]: Yes, he does.
Lawson: My kids ask me all the time. Like my granddaughter, she’ll walk past. They know he died. They know that he didn’t have to. They know my mother was hurt from it and my mother was really sad. They know all of this, all of these things that happened was as a result of Martin Luther King getting assassinated and the significance of that.
Newkirk: One of the things Vanessa keeps is an obituary for Vincent. The Lawson family never had a service for him when they found his body in 1971. No obituaries or memorials either. But in 2018, on the 50th anniversary of the riots, Vanessa sent The Washington Post an obituary that she wrote for Vincent. It’s written as an apology from Vincent to his family for being hard-headed, for going out and getting in over his head. It’s got that picture of Vincent in it, with his spread collar and his baby face. It notes that he was only 14 years old. The date of his death is given as April 5.
Newkirk: Why did you pick that day?
Lawson: That’s the day that he went missing. That’s the day if he could have come home, he would have. That’s the last day that anybody saw him. That’s the day he should have come home.
Newkirk: She’ll never know the exact date Vincent died. None of us will. But it helps Vanessa to mark the date as April 5, because it connects him to King. People may not remember that a boy went out that night to score some stockings for his mother. They may not remember the mother who died just three years later. They might not remember Vanessa. But they will remember the nights that America grieved and the nights that America burned. So in a way, they’ll always remember Vincent.