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Louis grocery store, his fourth criminal conviction. Ray had grown up in downstate Illinois and in rural towns in northeastern Missouri, in communities that were home to some of the poorest white people in the Midwest. His story of want and need feels familiar to me. Ray was an impoverished, neglected child; so was my father, who had grown up in the banana-farming region of eastern Guatemala , along the Motagua River. My father stopped his schooling at the sixth grade.
He was twenty-one when he left for the United States with my mother, who was pregnant with me. He thought that California had better prospects for his new family, and that he might complete his education there, too.
In Los Angeles, while working as a busboy and a parking attendant, he earned his high-school diploma by taking night courses at Hollywood High. When he moved on to classes at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, he brought home a thick, crimson hardcover textbook on American history. I began to peruse its pages when I was still in grade school.
Although Ray was my neighbor, he was invisible to me: I have no memory of seeing him. Now I know that he had lived less than a hundred and fifty feet away, as he was plotting the act that would launch his entry into history in the name of white supremacy. In the months when Ray was our neighbor, he took classes in dance and bartending, and saw a hypnotist, apparently trying to conquer his shyness. Photographs from this period show Ray, then forty, as a dark-haired man with penetrating, steely-blue eyes and a taste for sharp-looking clothes.
Ray paid for his self-improvement efforts with money from a robbery he committed while he was a fugitive. In December, , Ray visited the North Hollywood Presidential-campaign office of George Wallace , the former governor of Alabama, who had become a folk hero among segregationists for attempting to prevent two African-American students from attending the University of Alabama. Ray had gathered signatures to help get Wallace on the California ballot. Wallace ran on the American Independent Party ticket in the election, against Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, and carried five Southern states.
I did not know that people were subjected to racial classifications, official and unofficial, epithets that were mumbled and shouted, or categories that were checked off on birth certificates and census forms, tallied in school-district and city-planning offices, and inscribed on property deeds. Some nights, he, my mother, and I listened to the shortwave signal of a Guatemalan radio station that broadcast marimba orchestras.
I became aware of the swirling cultural storm of the late sixties, with its mod styles and transistor technologies, and its rock and soul anthems. At birth, my life was linked to black history and to Memphis, Tennessee. My godfather, Booker Wade, was an African-American native of that city who, as a teen-ager, in , had joined a silent sit-in at the segregated central branch of the public library. That winter, Wade found himself living in the same building as my parents, and, upon learning that they did not own a car, offered to drive my mother to the hospital when the time came to deliver her baby.
He wore a blue suit to my baptism. He had bought a pair of Bushnell binoculars and a Remington Model rifle with a seven-power scope. The previous night, King had given a speech in which he mentioned the threats against his life since arriving in Memphis, and recalled the assassination attempt that he had survived in King became a martyr in my home, a pobre hombre who died for the idea of social equality.
Today, my physical closeness to two characters in the story of civil rights—an activist and an assassin—feels like an odd and unlikely coincidence. But I think every Latino kid grows up this way, in proximity to the drama of American history and its assorted players, trying to figure out where he fits in. These days, Central American boys and girls live in the neighborhoods Hijuelos frequented. Ever since the first colonies of Anglo-Saxon migrants were founded on the North American continent, white people have written stories filled with ambition and conquest.
More than a century before my family arrived in California, a Mexican teamster, known only as Antonio, was among those whose bodies were cannibalized by the Donner Party, the ill-fated emigrants to California who became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada in His story has never been told.
My fair-skinned mother could pass for white, until her heavy accent betrayed her. My father, with his Mayan nose and copper coloring, never could. For James Earl Ray, his whiteness meant that he deserved better than what he had.
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His perception of African-Americans as impoverished, diminished people made the color of his skin a source of power in a dismal life. He was born a few doors down from the biggest brothel in Alton, Illinois, a racially mixed city, in The jazz legend Miles Davis was born in Alton two years earlier. The family bounced around a region of the Midwest thick with African-American history, home to settlements that had been stops on the Underground Railroad.
Posner writes that many residents of Ewing were the descendants of Southern migrants whose families supported the Confederacy in the Civil War.
Why Martin Luther King Jr.'s father changed their names
The elder Ray spent most days at the local pool hall. But, like other white people in town, Ray could boast that no free black man had ever spent the night there. Across the cities and towns of the Midwest, a powerful, de-facto segregation took hold. My mother and father grew up in a society with its own rigid class divisions and restricted social mobility. They met and began courting at the site of a car crash in Guatemala City. I was the result of an assignation in the back of a delivery van during an autumn downpour. My father married her after they discovered she was pregnant; she told me this when I was seven or eight years old, at about the time she and my father split because of his repeated infidelities.
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After they separated, they started new relationships, and I began to feel that I was an accident—the product of an impetuous act in the lives of two very young and headstrong people of limited means. At school, I sensed that outsiders regarded me with benevolent concern. To my teachers, who were mostly from the Midwest and Texas, I was a lost soul fortunate enough to find a home in California, where, through hard work and faith in American democracy, I could become an equal member of my community.
As I grew older, I gradually came to understand that my Guatemalan heritage granted me a different kind of membership. In the seventies, when my family moved to one of L. I was eventually absorbed into this larger group of people who did not have a light shining on them, and who were angry and proud as a result. The teachers who met James Earl Ray as a boy saw a proud, angry young man suffering from neglect. It was the name his father used and claimed to have given to his son. According to Africana. Until adulthood, Martin Luther King, Jr. The staff at the Martin Luther King, Jr.
Critics have charged that King plagiarized that too by borrowing from a speech given to the Republican convention in by an African-American preacher named Archibald Carey, Jr. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
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Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California!