Even at the age of 7, I was accustomed to people coming in and out of our house at all hours of the day and night. My parents ran the NAACP and organized civil rights marches from our living room, and published a militant newspaper from our basement. On any given night, there were revolutionaries at our dinner table, college kids singing freedom songs, union workers painting picket signs, people arguing passionately about strategy and politics and race relations and whose turn it was to go pick up the fried chicken from Stefanich’s.
But this night — April 4, 1968 — was a night like no other.
The murder of Martin Luther King had triggered an uprising of rage and grief all over America, including my quiet, working-class town of Joliet, Illinois. My father was out on the streets that night as the madness reigned, trying his best to protect and redirect the young students who were rioting, burning, protesting, and in danger of being shot. It was my father — the first black lawyer our town had ever seen — who would be in the newspaper and on the radio the next day.
But it was my mother who was home with us kids.
She opened the door a thousand times that night as people streamed into the house, weeping, screaming, hysterical. It was my mother who sent me scurrying to find a pair of pajamas for the daughter of her friend, who had been so frightened by the sirens and fires that she’d wet her pants.
It was my mother who wrested the phone out of my 5-year-old brother’s hands while the caller screamed, “We comin’ to kill your black nigger daddy, boy, you hear me? We gonna kill all you niggers tonight!”
It was my mother who responded to the FBI — already known to be infiltrating civil rights groups, spying on King, and spreading disinformation — when they called, ostensibly to offer their help.
FBI: Ma’am, there are numerous credible threats against your husband. We’d like to send out a couple of men for your protection.
Mother: The first white face I see on my property will be going to see Jesus tonight.
I think back on this night, from the perspective of my own parenthood, and I am amazed. She had three young children, ages 7, 5 and 1 — too many to carry if you had to run, too many to hold if the house were bombed. But she didn’t falter. She was fiercely angry at the loss of King; at times she was weeping with grief. She was a military general, organizing rides for volunteers, ordering food, lining up lawyers for the inevitable arrests. She was deeply worried about my father and whether he was safe.
But if she had an ounce of fear in her, I didn’t see it.
She didn’t blink when our neighbor walked through the front door with a shotgun over one shoulder and two pistols in his belt. “Watch the alley,” she said. “And don’t shoot the dog by mistake.”
My father came home at sunrise, dirty but unhurt. He wept in her arms. I wouldn’t see him cry again for 26 years, when he had to bury her. Over the next few days and weeks, our city was uneasy but quiet. The National Guard patrolled our neighborhood, the line blurred between protecting us and restraining us. Everywhere I looked there were burned buildings and empty houses. The good white citizens of Joliet raised the bridges over the Desplaines River, to keep us Negroes on our side of the river.
I was 7 years old, and I knew something really bad had happened. But I wasn’t afraid.
I was with my mother.