Come and sing a simple song of freedom /
Sing it like you've never sung before /
Let it fill the air /
Tell the people everywhere /
We, the people here, don't want a war
How telling is it that, on the day Martin Luther King was assassinated 40 years ago tomorrow, I cannot remember even one song from that horrific time? It's like a slate wiped clean of a single note.
To pay my respects, I'll choose one of the first folk songs I remember really loving: Simple Song of Freedom by the singer-songwriter Tim Hardin. The story goes that Bobby Darin, who is the song's composer, gave the song to Hardin, whose If I Were A Carpenter had been a hit for Darin in 1966. Simple Song of Freedom became Hardin's only hit. As protest songs go, it is profoundly lovely.
What would Dr. King think of the colossal mess we find ourselves into today? Almost a full year before his death, he was one of the first prominent Americans to come out against the Vietnam War. Listen here to his sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in which he laid out his reasoning in eloquent detail, further observing that our integrated troops were fighting in "brutal solidarity" 8,000 miles away in Southeast Asia when they still could not be "seated together in the same schoolroom" or live on the same street in cities across the country.
When he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, I was living in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., which erupted into riots for almost 4 days, burning large parts of the city to the ground. Our schools were closed that Friday - we were close enough to D.C. that keeping people home seemed prudent, especially as my Montgomery County school district was one of the few integrated ones in the area. No one knew what to expect as we helplessly watched the violence escalate on television and federal troops trying to subdue crowds that at various points swelled to 20,000 in number.
My parents a week later decided to drive the family down to the District to survey the damage. To this day I don't know precisely what possessed them to do such a thing, but I will always remember the devastation. Some blocks in D.C. remained in rubble for decades afterward, so neglected was the city in the aftermath.
The evening of King's assassination, Robert Kennedy announced the news to an audience in Indianapolis, a mere 2 months before his own death in the same manner. In his heartbreaking remarks, he quoted from Aeschylus' tragedy Agamemnon - "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
When is it, exactly, that we're going to see this wisdom made manifest? How many more have to die? And for what?