Fifty years ago Wednesday, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
It’s also the anniversary of another killing, a nearly forgotten Minneapolis tragedy, remembered now by a new musical composition.
After hearing news of King’s death, 27-year-old Clarence C. Underwood III announced to his family that he would shoot the first white man he saw. Around 10 p.m. on April 4, 1968, he used a .45-caliber automatic to fire four shots (one to the knee, three to the head) at North Side neighbor John F. Murray, a 25-year-old white man disembarking from the bus after work.
When police arrived, Underwood begged them to shoot him. “They killed my King,” he said.
Twin Cities musician Davu Seru (formerly David Underwood) draws upon these events for “Dead King Mother,” a composition he calls a “blues for chamber ensemble.”
A composer-in-residence for Zeitgeist music ensemble’s Studio Z, Seru also happens to be Underwood’s great-nephew.
Underwood was more mythical than familiar in Seru’s life. Born in 1978, Seru grew up in north Minneapolis hearing stories about the killing.
It was “like a folk tale with stock characters who served ideas more than they did real people,” Seru said in a smooth, radio-ready baritone on a recent morning at St. Paul’s Studio Z.
Twin Cities attorney and arts donor Jack Hoeschler was living in Chicago when Murray was killed. He and his wife were volunteers for President John F. Kennedy’s anti-poverty VISTA program. “It was a very charged time,” Linda Hoeschler recalled. “You didn’t know what was going to happen day after day.”
Murray also happened to be Jack’s second cousin. They were born the same year — 1942 — in La Crosse, Wis. Jack remembers Murray and his family as “good Catholic liberals.” Murray, then a newlywed, had made a conscious decision to live in north Minneapolis, proving that integrated neighborhoods were safe.
He was “almost an iconic and ironic innocent figure,” Jack said. “The real tragedy is the innocent people always get hurt.”
Underwood’s son, Kevin, wasn’t quite 2 when the crime occurred. “My childhood was one of the same stories as many young black males growing up without a father,” he explained in a written statement. (Kevin is an advertising art director at the Star Tribune.)
“He committed the murder, not us,” added Underwood’s daughter, Kelly Hill, who was 6 at the time. “So, as I always tell people, we did not carry that burden.”
Seru’s composition views the events through the eyes of a character based on their mother, Arlene Margaret Mayfield. Although Underwood was sentenced to 40 years in prison, he served just seven. Underwood and Mayfield divorced while he was in prison. After his release, Underwood tried to stay out of trouble but “didn’t always succeed,” Seru said. Underwood remarried and fathered more children. As for Mayfield, she had become the first black woman to work at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
In his eulogy, Underwood thanked his late ex-wife at her 2009 funeral for raising their children while he was away. “Some of you know where I was,” he said. “Those times were different for our people.”
“I found that a curious statement considering the weight of the offense,” offered Seru.
The words stuck with him. And in 2015, one year after Underwood’s death, Seru wrote a melodic sketch of the tragedy, imagining how his great-aunt might have responded to Underwood’s rationalization.
Commissioned by Zeitgeist, “Dead King Mother” premiered in February at Studio Z with Sarah Greer on vocals and various players on tuba, bassoon, fluegelhorn, piano and percussion. Members of both the Underwood and Murray families attended the performance, meeting for the first time.
The Hoeschlers sat by Underwood’s children. “The kids were very tender to us,” said Linda, a former executive director for the American Composers Forum in St. Paul.
“I wasn’t shocked, I was more intrigued,” said Jack of the project. “It’s not so much a story about a murder but about the consequences of a murder.”
Seru’s cousins also supported the endeavor. “It’s a story about his family, too,” Kevin Underwood noted.
At the same time, Kevin was a little offended by the post-performance dialogue. “Folks seemed to be dissecting the poetry and music more than the very serious subject matter,” he wrote. “When they did very lightly address the subject matter, it seemed to be more of a forum to spew opinions about ‘the murderer’ and how much time he should have received in jail. ... ‘The murderer,’ my father, was actually my best friend in the world next to my mother until the day of his death.”
Turning the conversation
With the anniversary of King’s assassination comes another performance of “Dead King Mother.” This time Zeitgeist is staging the piece at the Capri Theater, a “black space,” as Seru calls it, in the very neighborhood where the killing occurred. Seru, who now lives in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood with his wife and 9-year-old son, anticipates a different kind of conversation this time around.
“Some of the work that I’ve been doing recently was a way to kind of pay back my neighborhood for all the great things it gave me,” he said. Born to a teen mother, Seru came of age on the North Side during the infamous “Murderapolis” period of the 1990s. “It was pretty [expletive] horrible,” he remembered. “So I ran. I left. I got out quick.”
At 19, he sought refuge in Chicago, immersing himself in the experimental jazz scene. But he quickly returned to his home state, earning a bachelor’s degree in African-American literature from Hamline University in 2007 and a master’s in English from the University of Minnesota in 2012. That sent him down a path of multiple careers: drummer, bandleader, composer, professor and author (he wrote the text for “Sights, Sounds, Soul: The Twin Cities Through the Lens of Charles Chamblis,” a photography collection nominated for a 2018 Minnesota Book Award).
When Seru left the North Side, “all I could focus on was the fact that it said ‘no’ to me most of my life,” he said.
“No” is no longer the refrain Seru wants to propagate. Instead, like the hero in “Dead King Mother,” he asks, “Do you remember?”
Sparking memory isn’t the music’s only aim. Parts of the shocking “Dead King Mother” story are just as relevant and applicable to the current political climate. For Seru, one of the story’s lessons is that “we have choices about how we decide to punish people, but more often than not, we let procedure speak for us.” He hopes the production inspires audiences to be less ignorant and less trigger-happy (“pun intended,” he added). Ultimately, he said, “I hope they leave better. I hope I leave better. Because we are better.”
Erica Rivera is a freelance writer and book author from Minneapolis.