They Killed All My Heroes Day

(Author’s Note – I first wrote this post 10 years ago, January 15, 2007.)

This is the federal holiday marking the birth of Martin Luther King, but I celebrate it as “They Killed All My Heroes” Day. It’s a day for me to remember and honor all the political figures I admired as a young boy who were assassinated when I was between the ages of 11-18. The roll call:

  • Medgar Evers – June 11, 1963. I have no recollection of the actual event, but I came to know how he was assassinated as I became older and more familiar with the civil rights movement. The NAACP Field Secretary in Mississippi, he was shot in his driveway after a number of threats on his life and a molotov cocktail thrown into his garage.
  • John F. Kennedy – November 22, 1963. The first of the “big three.” Mr. Monoco, a huge man and much feared by us all for his gruff manner, came bursting into our 6th-grade classroom completely distraught and red in the face. “They shot the President,” he screamed, and then had us turn on the TV that was standing in the corner of the room. Walter Kronkite broke the news to us. I was a member of the School Safety Patrol, a group of kids charged with being crossing guards when school let out. When I took my post that afternoon I could do nothing else but lean my head on the “No Traffic Past This Point” sign and cry for 20 minutes.
  • James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner – June 21, 1964. The three CORE volunteers in the Freedom Summer of 1964 whose murders were the basis of the movie Mississippi Burning. I learned of their story early in high school as I began to learn the music of Simon and Garfunkel and their song He Was My Brother.
  • Malcolm X – February 21, 1965. His assassination was all over the New York newspapers. I recall not liking him much because I thought he was for a violent solution and because he disagreed with MLK. I read his autobiography four years later and remember being very impressed with it. It changed my opinion on his contribution to the civil rights movement.
  • Martin Luther King – April 4, 1968. The second of the “big three.” I don’t recall hearing the news immediately, but I do recall awakening for school the following morning and hearing the news reports coming in on the radio. His eloquence captivated me, as did his stance on non-violence and Vietnam. He was a major influence on my decision to become a conscientious objector and war resistor. I recall the images of the Poor People’s March on Washington. There was so much hope in his tone and so much pride in those who listened and spoke.
  • Robert F. Kennedy – June 6, 1968. The third of the “big three.” Again, I awoke to the news on the east coast that morning as my radio alarm clock went off. All I wanted to know was who won the California primary (I was pulling for the junior Senator from NY). My first response was “not again!” I had viewed Bobby as the first politician I knew who really was serious about earning the votes of the poor and impoverished. He spoke out against apartheid in South Africa long before it was fashionable to do so. He and MLK started off a bit suspicious of each other, but eventually worked for the same goals. His assassination came so hard on the heels of MLK that I truly thought the country was going to fall apart.
  • Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller,Sandra Scheuer,William Schroeder – May 4, 1970. I include the Kent State shootings because the entire event grew out of political protests by unarmed students protesting the invasion of Cambodia facing an armed National Guard. It was the spring of my senior year in high school, I was preparing to go to college myself. I had applied for conscientious objector status and was exploring local groups like the Quakers, Fellowship for Reconciliation, the Catholic Peace Fellowship and the War Resistors League. I was nervous about going to college, because in the aftermath of Kent State I thought they were going to come after all student protesters the same way. I had an escape route planned for Canada should I have needed it. I was 18 years old.

By the time I got to college that fall, things began to slow down, protests were minimal (were people afraid? in hiding?), the draft was converted to a lottery system (my number was never called), and the war was clearly being lost. By the time I graduated, the war had only one year to go, civil rights had been largely achieved under law, I had discovered theatre, and Van McCoy would record The Hustle a year later as well. It was over. I spent three years teaching about peace and justice issues in a Catholic high school in Queens, but it had all become passé already. With no more heroes left, there seemed nowhere to turn, and those who were still alive (H. Rap Brown, Bobby Seale, Dan and Phillip Berrigan et. al.) were seemingly ineffective or past their prime. The “numbing of America” had begun.

So happy “They Killed All My Heroes” day to all of you. Let it be remembered on this day that the poor are still oppressed, the weak still downtrodden, the innocent still slaughtered, and the warmongers still in charge. I only hope that there will remain an earth which the meek would even be willing to inherit. -twl