What a terrible thing to set to music.
I admit that I am a sucker for the sensational—particularly tall tales of bad men and anti-heroes wreaking havoc on polite society. And I know that I am not the only one.
What happened and who was involved is mostly clear. A 27-year old black man in a perilous mental state sought out the first white man he could find and killed him, claiming it as an act of revenge for the assassination of MLK. Pointing his gun at police the man, Clarence C. Underwood III, told the arresting officers to shoot because someone shot his King. They chose instead to spare his life.
Schizophrenia and amnesia are entered into Clarence’s defense by civil rights attorney Douglas Hall, who would echo the tones of the Kerner Commission’s infamous 1967 report on the cause of so many U.S. cities being lit on fire by black people: what the effects of slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, red-lining, discrimination in labor, police brutality and more bring to bear on the psyche of ghetto populations. ‘That’s why,’ the commission reports.
125 cities in twenty-nine states are looted and lit on fire, resulting in an estimated $45 million in property damage. Yet, Time reported that, two weeks following the assassination of Dr. King:
the loss of lives was astonishingly low, 43 Americans (39 of them men) died as a result of the riots that followed Martin Luther King’s murder. Of these, 36 were Negroes; 14, all but one of them Negroes, were under 21 years old. Bullets slew 25 of the victims. Unknown assailants took the lives of eight; nine were slain by private citizens; police killed 13. Ten died in fires or from inhaling smoke and three from other causes.
Astonishingly low. Still, in addition to Clarence’s case in Minneapolis, they noted how, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a white contractor, Roger D. McKibbin Jr. “was knifed to death at a drive-in ice-cream store while his three young children watched.” Michael Raymond Crowe, the ex-mental patient charged with the murder, is reported to have “vowed to kill the first white man he saw” as revenge for King’s assassination.
National media attention would, of course, focus on the hundreds of cities on fire across the United States. Americans would witness much of it via their televisions.
Amnesia would be ruled out of Clarence’s murder case after Judge Donald T. Barbeau failed to find precedent in either the U.S. or England for holding a defendant incompetent to stand trial solely based on amnesia. After giving Clarence the “maximum sentence” of 40 years, Judge Barbeau said he knew of no other way to make a proper record of [Clarence’s plea of innocent], since Underwood could not admit acts that he was unable to remember.”
Who would want to remember?
I’ve carried a sketch of the story in memory since childhood. Uncle Clarence was always the guy in the family who killed a white man. Tactical trickster, reefer smoking bad-ass, but also the father who abandoned his children. This is the sort of thing that one cousin would mischievously whisper to another upon watching Clarence freely make his way through our neighborhood in North Minneapolis in the 1980s. Initially Clarence would be charged with first-degree murder—but still he would maintain his innocence since, as was claimed, he could not remember what had happened. In the end, he would be prosecuted for second-degree murder and sentenced to forty years at Stillwater State Prison. He would serve one year at Saint Peter Mental Hospital and six at Stillwater.
The white man was 25-year old John Frank Murray, a former Catholic school teacher from La Crosse, WI. For a moment, his fateful night with Clarence would be projected onto the national screen. Two actors in a complicated tale narrated as a battle between Negro and white. Soon he would be forgotten, as would the wives, children and families most impacted.
Part of what makes this story worth repeating is the way that it points to matters that are broadly historical—as if to steal itself away from those who would own it. The way that the unequivocally bad actions of a neighbor, husband and father, become an anomalous case in a history that could have only been made in America.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan responded to the 1967 riots in Watts by rationalizing that black people had been “suffering non-violently” for some time. Indeed, most black people would endure the savageries against life and liberty in the United States with a kind of tragic grace. Others would not.
The infamous 1831 bloodletting at Southampton, VA, is perhaps the most memorable example of violent revolt, particularly for the horrifying shadow that the killing of women and children left on white consciousness in slave-holding communities. But it has also been represented as an act of heroism by some, especially blacks (see, for instance, the documentary Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property).
Most of the focus of the rebellion would be toward the leader of the insurrection, Nathaniel Turner, who would be characterized as a madman. Thomas Gray, the white author of Turner’s confession would pry Turner for a motive, asking whether he was mistaken in his initial claim to have been acting on divine purpose. Presumably satisfied in his sense of self, Turner is reported to have responded with the rhetorical question, “was not Christ crucified?” This is the account that would circulate throughout America in the days following the event.
Subsequently, hundreds of black people, many of them having nothing to do with the insurrection would be summarily executed by white mobs hell-bent on intimidating enslaved blacks into further submission; hell-bent on suppressing those inspired by Turner.
Clarence’s life had reached a personal low in the time leading up to the killing, and those closest to him know that his actions were anything but heroic. Still, talk to black people who were around in 1968 and you’ll find out that Clarence just happened to be the one to do what many felt like doing once they heard of King’s assassination. Talk to people who were there, and you get the sense that only a fool, disappointed lover, or innocent child would seek a motive.
The “King of love is dead,” sang Nina Simone. “Kill honkeys,” charged Stokely Carmichael.
But why John?
It turns out that he and his wife, Diane, lived just down the street from Clarence and his family on Humboldt Avenue in North Minneapolis. With remarkable coolness, John’s sister, Michael Kleinschmidt, would tell the Winona Daily News that “it was so ironic because John was for the Negroes.” Ironic, and tragic.
And what better time for it than the 1960s? As if cultural revolution would be achieved only if something else was cast off: Vietnam, the Kennedy’s, Malcolm, Hampton, Kent State, Chicago DNC, King…
John F. Murray. Clarence C. Underwood III.
In the days following, Twin Citizens would aid the Glenwood Civic League in raising more than $1,000 to make sure that Murray’s widow, Diane Ward, could afford passage back to La Crosse, WI, and away from her racially mixed neighborhood in Minneapolis. The Murray family would have to live out their days less one son, brother, cousin… And they suffer.
Clarence died in 2014. His wife at the time of the killing, Arlene, would be left to raise her three children—two young girls and a baby boy—without their father. She would die in Minneapolis in 2009 after working for much of her life as the first black woman employed at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve.
Everybody has their own blues to sing. But sometimes we’re called to witness on behalf of others. That’s my aim in “Dead King Mother.”
Click here for performance info.
Thanks to Barbara Bezat and Heather Barringer for aiding in the research of this project.And to the families.
“Mayhem and Mishap: How they Died.” Time. 19 April 1968, n.p. Retrieved at www.time.com, 22 December 2009.
“Murder is Charged in Shooting.” Minneapolis Star, 6 April 1968, pg. 6.
Moynihan quoted in Clay Risen’s A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2009., p. 7.
“City Man Sentenced to 40 Years in Slaying.” Minneapolis Tribune, 4 February 1969, p. 13.
Davu Seru, in partnership with Zeitgeist, is a fiscal year 2017 recipient of a Cultural Community Partnership Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.