Listen: The night Uncle Clarence went out to shoot a white man

MPR’s Marianne Combs reports on “Dead King Mother,” a composition created by local composer Davu Seru, who calls piece a "blues for chamber ensemble." The subject matter is a 1968 incident in which Clarence Underwood, a Minneapolis Black man, who upon hearing the news of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, told his wife, "My King is dead." He vowed to kill the first white man he found. Underwood went on to murder John F. Murray, a white man in neighborhood.

Seru, a composer, musician and scholar, is part of the extensive Underwood family. His work has opened up lines of communication between two families bound by tragedy after 50 years of silence.


2018 MBJA Eric Sevareid Award, award of merit in Soft Feature - Large Market Radio category


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SPEAKER 1: Today we're commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. And on the same evening that Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis, another man was shot and killed in North Minneapolis. And tonight, people will gather at the Capri Theater to listen to new music inspired by that evening's events and to remember. Marianne Combs reports.

MARIANNE COMBS: Composer, musician and scholar Davu Seru grew up in North Minneapolis. He's part of the extensive Underwood family, which moved to the North side from Ohio in the early 1900s. Seru remembers how as a child seeing one particular member of the family would provoke a certain amount of awe.

DAVU SERU: The kids, especially the little boys, my cousins, and myself would often whisper, "Oh, there's Uncle Clarence." He killed a white man.

MARIANNE COMBS: It wasn't until grad school that Seru started looking into the details of what happened. What he found was both haunting and poignant. It inspired him to compose "Dead King Mother," a piece he calls "blues four chamber ensemble." In so doing, he's opened up lines of communication between two families bound by tragedy after 50 years of silence.

SPEAKER 2: Tonight at approximately 8:00 PM, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed while standing on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.

MARIANNE COMBS: On the night of April 4, 1968, news was spreading quickly of Martin Luther King Jr. death , setting off riots in cities across the nation. Clarence Underwood upon hearing the news told his wife, "My King is dead" and vowed to kill the first white man he found.

DAVU SERU: He leaves the house. There's a man getting off the bus who is white, and his name is John F. Murray. And he lives in the same block as Clarence.

MARIANNE COMBS: Underwood shot Murray in the knee, and then in the head. Some news reports from that week say it was three shots to the head, others say five. Then, Underwood took off.

DAVU SERU: And the police catch up with him. He aims his gun at the police. And he says, "Shoot me. They killed my King."

MARIANNE COMBS: The police fired a warning shot, talked Underwood down, and took him into custody. Kelly Hill is Clarence Underwood's daughter.

KELLY HILL: I was six years old. And I remember the day vividly.

MARIANNE COMBS: Hill remembers her parents fighting, her dad leaving, and then the police coming to the house. She remembers sirens and lights.

KELLY HILL: I think I was too little to comprehend how bad it was. I knew that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated that day. I think I learned what assassinated was. But I didn't know the connection to it.

MARIANNE COMBS: Hill says her father had a drinking problem, and he was in and out of jail a lot. But he was also really smart. He liked to play chess and read. During his stint in prison, he got his barber's license, which he used to open up a barber shop.

KELLY HILL: So he was troubled, but he was trying to pull it together.

MARIANNE COMBS: Davu Seru says Underwood wasn't the only person who wanted revenge that night.

DAVU SERU: Most people I talk to say, no, that's exactly how I felt that night, particularly men, like men. I felt ready to do the same thing, but elders in the community talked us down.

MARIANNE COMBS: While Underwood became a sort of folk hero for some, Seru says it was his weakness that led him to take a life in revenge for the death of a man of peace.

DAVU SERU: He was not the conscious revolutionary that we would like him to have been that we would have understood better.


SPEAKER 3: 3,000 national guardsmen are on the street in Chicago tonight. At least three persons are dead and possibly a fourth.

MARIANNE COMBS: In April 1968, Jack and Linda Hoeschler were working as Vista volunteers in Black neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago when they heard that Jack second cousin John Murray had been killed. Linda says they were deeply saddened to hear the news, but frankly, given the violence of the times, they weren't surprised.

LINDA HOESCHLER: We had had so many experiences with I had gone through an attempted rape, we had two kids tried to burn down our house, I had been caught in gunfire, a few months later Jack's beaten up by people just because he's a white guy in the wrong neighborhood. It wasn't unexpected.

MARIANNE COMBS: John Murray is survived by two brothers who live in his hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin. They both declined interviews for this story, but said Jack and Linda could speak on their behalf. Jack Hoeschler describes Murray as an idealist who sometimes took guff for hanging out with the Black students in college. Murray got married in December 1966.

JACK HOESCHLER: He and his wife decided to live on the North side of Minneapolis because they wanted to show that whites could live in a Black neighborhood, and we'd all get along together. His father said, "Are you really sure? Is that a good idea? And frankly, I think, he somewhat naively said, absolutely, I'm sure. I'm ready to go and wanted to prove this.

MARIANNE COMBS: Jack says, in retrospect, the story feels like a Greek tragedy as though Clarence and John were fated to encounter each other that night, both caught up in something bigger than themselves. The Hoeschlers are longtime supporters of new music. When they found out about Davu Seru's project, Linda says, they invited him over for dinner to talk.

SPEAKER 3: And I said, unfortunately, Clarence shot the wrong person. And he said, what do you mean? And I realized then he was thinking probably so many Blacks have been shot, and nobody said you shot the wrong person. There were a lot of perfectly good other people shot. But it's a tragedy to me that John was trying to prove living together would work and he was killed maybe not for that, but because of it or as a result of it.

MARIANNE COMBS: Linda says the family was deeply touched that a contingent of North Minneapolis residents showed up in La Crosse for John Murray's funeral. She says, his death wreaked havoc on his family

LINDA HOESCHLER: There is real pain and everyone's voice today. There is real anguish. The hurt goes on. It's not over in 50 years. And I think that despite their understanding, their forgiveness, they are still wounded and the wound is open.

MARIANNE COMBS: Clarence Underwood was eventually convicted of second-degree murder with a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison. He ended up serving seven. He got sober and eventually remarried. Meanwhile, his first wife, Arlene Underwood, had been left to raise their three kids on her own. Davu Seru remembers seeing Clarence at Arlene's funeral and 2009

he got up during the eulogizing and thanked her for raising his children and reminded everybody that the reason she did so alone was because he was away and why. And he said, those times were different for our people. And I found that utterly fascinating. I found that to be far from an apology, but a rationalization of sorts that probably troubled me a bit. And so I thought, I wonder what she would have said had she an opportunity to respond.

[DAVU SERU, "DEAD KING MOTHER"] One Black and and holy life, there he was.

MARIANNE COMBS: Seru says, he composed "Dead King Mother" from the point of view of an archetypal mother inspired by Arlene he says, for him, blues music is not just about singing sad songs. It's a ritual, a communal remembering of suffering.

DAVU SERU: I went to the gospel tradition. So there are some musical allusions to were you there when they crucified my lord that both allude to the sacrifice of King and Murray that night.


MARIANNE COMBS: Seru will conduct "Dead King Mother" tonight at the Capri Theater in North Minneapolis. The performance will be followed by a panel discussion. Representatives of both families will be there.

DAVU SERU: I'm taking that story that seemed had been the property of my childhood and expanding it trying to figure out through music, through art, how to give meaning to it and to involve others in that process as well.


MARIANNE COMBS: Clarence Underwood died in 2014. Despite his actions on April 4, 1968, his daughter Kelly says, she never saw him as a murderer. She says, it was what he did once during a terribly violent time, but it's not who he was. Covering the arts, I'm Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio news.


SPEAKER 1: This Minnesota Public Radio News--


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