Monday, April 04, 2011

Remembering MLK Jr. + Poem: June Jordan

This is the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), one of the most tragic events in a year and era of horrors. His murder was a terrible blow to the African-American Civil Rights movement and to the push for equality for all Americans, of all races and ethnicities, genders, sexualities, religions, classes, but it also challenged those whom he had led, with whom he had walked, for whom he had fought, to keep going, and our society was irrevocably changed for the better because of him.  Rev. Dr. King was shot in cold blood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he had gone earlier in the spring of 1968 to support striking black sanitation workers, who were pushing for equal pay and conditions. I AM A MAN. In his final months, Dr. King stood and marched with the working people, with his brothers, who were only asking for fairness, decency, equal treatment. That struggle, like so many others, continues as I type this entry. It was during his return visit in April 1968, the day after he had spoken to the Mason Temple, the world headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, that he was killed. But I'm not saying anything most readers here do not already know.

The great poet June Jordan (1936-2002), whom I first encountered in my college years, awed and later got to meet and hear read several times, including towards the very end of her life when she also participated in a remarkable conversation at NYU with Toni Morrison, wrote the following poem in tribute and memory to Dr. King.  I am not alone in considering him to be one of the greatest figures ever to have emerged from this society, and one of the most extraordinary people in history, for his vision, his bravery, and his courage, and I think that June Jordan captures this in the most boiled-down form, almost a distillate of thought and feeling, that pours and then rills, like tears, down the page. June Jordan, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, was a native of New York and attended Barnard and the University of Chicago. She published her first book in 1968, and went on to publish nearly 30 more books. She taught at a number of colleges and universities, and when I first encountered her work, she was a professor at SUNY Stony Brook, but she went on to teach at the University of California-Berkeley. She was beloved as a teacher, but also deeply admired for her political outspokenness and her bravery in coming out. I can recall more than a few poems of hers that did not stint in telling it like it was, whether the issue was the dreadful governments of the time, or the contours of her private life.

In 1991 she founded the highly acclaimed Poetry for the People program, which, as its website says, "continues to pursue Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of a beloved community for all."  One visionary, writing in tribute to another.

In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr.


honey people murder mercy U.S.A.
the milkland turn to monsters teach
to kill to violate pull down destroy
the weakly freedom growing fruit
from being born


tomorrow yesterday rip rape
exacerbate despoil disfigure
crazy running threat the
deadly thrall
appall belief dispel
the wildlife burn the breast
the onward tongue
the outward hand
deform the normal rainy
riot sunshine shelter wreck
of darkness derogate
delimit blank
explode deprive
assassinate and batten up
like bullets fatten up
the raving greed
reactivate a springtime

death by men by more
than you or I can



They sleep who know a regulated place
or pulse or tide or changing sky
according to some universal
stage direction obvious
like shorewashed shells

we share an afternoon of mourning
in between no next predictable
except for wild reversal hearse rehearsal
bleach the blacklong lunging
ritual of fright insanity and more
deplorable abortion
more and

June Jordan, “In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr.” from Directed By Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005). Copyright © 2005 by The June M. Jordan Literary Trust. Reprinted with the permission of The June M. Jordan Literary Trust,

Source: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997)

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