Kate Chisholm

Violent deaths revisited

4.4.68 (BBC Radio 4); A Long Way From Home (BBC Radio 3)

Two dramas, both based on real life; two deaths by shotgun; two black men destroyed at their peak (although both plays seemed intent on suggesting that their destruction came just as their powers were failing). Radio Four has been reliving the events of 1968, and on Saturday Jon Sen’s play focused on the assassination of Martin Luther King on the fourth of April in that extraordinarily violent and disruptive year. 4.4.68 took us to Memphis, Tennessee — smashing glass, police sirens, crowds shouting and rushing through the streets as the black workers in the sanitation works protested about their low wages and horrible working conditions. King was shot in the cheek while standing on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Hotel, having flown in specially to inspire and support the strikers. It was five years since his ‘I have a dream’ speech in Washington DC and 13 years since the Alabama bus strike where he had first lit upon his mission to lead the black people of the South out of their American apartheid.

I was looking forward to this play because thinking of King’s death takes me straight back to my teenage years in the genteel suburbs of north-west London. There was not much evidence of the Swinging Sixties in Cherryblossom Avenue, or of the violence in Grosvenor Square and the Place Saint-Michel, let alone Berkeley and Memphis. At the time those events seemed far, far away. Now looking back on them from a distance of 40 years it’s almost as if they’ve actually become much closer; the memory of first hearing and seeing that breaking news is so intense. Just to hear archive footage of King’s voice takes me back to black- and-white TV and that naive post-war optimism.

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