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April 5, 1968

Fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a new work by acclaimed poet Eve L. Ewing evokes the day Madison Street burned.


Fires on the West Side set by rioters reacting to the civil rights leader’s death left 28 blocks of Madison in charred rubble. Nearly 7,000 National Guardsmen and 5,000 soldiers were ordered into the city, and Mayor Richard J. Daley gave the police authority “to shoot to kill any arsonist.” The Tribune reported that seven people died in the riots, which lasted two days. Photo: CHICAGO TRIBUNE

(after Gwendolyn Brooks)


Our country is over, you see. Here lies //

my prettiest baby, and her glass fingertips are //

all over the tar. In the before I told //

her, ‘play, beloved,’ and //

from the storefront piano came legends //

of the mountaintop and it made //

me weep. I was an ugly phoenix //

but our dirt was our own. As the sun rises //

now I know what we do is right. Unafraid //

I stand before the skinny boy with the //

bayonet & say ‘before I’ll be an ashen ghost, black //

gone gray at your hand like our dead philosopher, //

I’ll burn my own, you see, just the way I want, & you will //

know it’s mine.’ Goodbye, Madison. I will remember //

my country, my sun-up town. Because there //

on the mountaintop I saw the fire in the valley. They //

were coming to take you away. They came //

with cursed water, the hurting river they used to //

strike down the children of Birmingham, each life //

a bad joke in their bull eyes. And //

I said ‘not here. Not never. Not Madison.’ And exulted //

in the shadow of the first fire, then the next, the //

heat sending sweat into my eyes, that simple salt hurt //

keeping me from thinking too long of your piano gone mute. //

I suspect the boy wanted to run then //

but he stood shaking, gun raised, and I said ‘if this is it, //

if this is my last day that ever was, //

man, at least I know I got over, //

that the likes of you will never have us, that the //

street I call my only home burned to dust //

at my hand. Let them sing of how bright the sun was as //

a coward struck me down, and everyone will know, they //

will tell it always, they will say //

that one glorious morning, I showed them your heart,
lest they think it was settled.


Ewing’s piece is a Golden Shovel, a poetic form in which the last word of each line is taken from another work. In this case, the end-of-line words form the conclusion of Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Third Sermon on the Warpland,” from her 1969 book Riot.

Video: DS Shin

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