Mike Royko: Millions in his Firing Squad
My father wrote this column the day Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, April 4, 1968. It ran the next day day (the way things worked in the pre-‘net age), April 5, 1968, in the Chicago Daily News.
FBI agents are looking for the man who pulled the trigger and surely they will find him.
But it doesn’t matter if they do or they don’t. They can’t catch everybody, and Martin Luther King was executed by a firing squad that numbered in the millions.
They took part, from all over the country, pouring words of hate into the ear of the assassin.
The man with the gun did what he was told. Millions of bigots, subtle and obvious, put it in his hand and assured him he was doing the right thing.
It would be easy to point at the Southern redneck and say he did it. But what of the Northern disk-jockey-turned-commentator, with his slippery words of hate every morning?
What about the Northern mayor who steps all over every poverty program advancement, thinking only of political expediency, until riots fester, whites react with more hate and the gap between the races grows bigger?
Toss in the congressman with the stupid arguments against busing. And the pathetic women who turn out with eggs in their hands to throw at children.
Let us not forget the law-and-order type politicians who are in favor of arresting all Negro prostitutes in the vice districts. When you ask them to vote for laws that would eliminate some of the causes of prostitution, they babble like the boobs they are.
Throw in a Steve Telow or two: the Eastern and Southern European immigrant or his kid who seems to be convinced that in 40 or 50 years he built this country. There was nothing here until he arrived, you see, so that gives him the right to pitch rocks when Martin Luther King walks down the street in his neighborhood.
They all took their place in King’s firing squad.
And behind them were the subtle ones, those who never say anything bad but just nod when the bigot throws out his strong opinions.
He is actually the worst, the nodder is, because sometimes he believes differently but he says nothing. He doesn’t want to cause trouble. For Pete’s sake, don’t cause trouble!
So when his brother-in-law or his card-playing buddy from across the alley spews out the racial filth, he nods.
Give some credit to the most subtle of the subtle. That distinction belongs to the FBI, now looking for King’s killer.
That agency took part in a mudslinging campaign against him that to this day demands an investigation.
The bullet that hit King came from all directions. Every two-bit politician or incompetent editorial writer found in him, not themselves, the cause of our racial problems.
It was almost ludicrous. The man came on the American scene preaching nonviolence from the first day he sat at the wrong end of a bus. He preached it in the North and was hit with rocks. He talked it the day he was murdered.
Hypocrites all over this country would kneel every Sunday morning and mouth messages to Jesus Christ. Then they would come out and tell each other, after reading the papers, that somebody should string up King, who was living Christianity like few Americans ever have.
Maybe it was the simplicity of his goal that confused people or the way he dramatized it.
He wanted only that black Americans have their constitutional rights, that they get an equal shot at this country’s benefits, the same thing we give to the last guy who jumped off the boat.
So we killed him. Just as we killed Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. No other country kills so many of its best people.
Last Sunday night the President said he was quitting after this term. He said this country is so filled with hate it might help if he got out. Four days later we killed a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
We have pointed a gun at our own head and we are squeezing the trigger. And nobody we elect is going to help us. It is our head and our finger.
Addendum by David Royko about my father and this column: I don’t think I have had anything shared on Facebook as many times as Dad’s column today (The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Day, January 16, 2016), and for good reason. Now consider this. King is pronounced dead at 7:05pm Memphis/Chicago time. Dad is polishing his column for the next day’s paper. The horrifying news is clicking off of the newsroom teletype machine. Dad turns back to his typewriter. By sunrise, what comes from his brain through his fingers is on the newsstand and the front porch — and today, nearly a half-century later, for all of us on our screens. Thanks again Dad. There will NEVER be another Mike Royko.