The night Uncle Clarence went out to kill a white man
Growing up in north Minneapolis, Davu Seru remembers, the sight of one particular family member would provoke a certain awe.
"The kids, especially the little boys — my cousins — and myself would often whisper, 'oh there's Uncle Clarence — he killed a white man!'"
Seru, a composer, musician and scholar, is part of the extensive Underwood family, which moved to the north side from Ohio in the early 1900s. It wasn't until grad school that he started looking into the details of Clarence Underwood's story.
What he found was both haunting and poignant. It inspired him to compose "Dead King Mother," a piece he calls "blues for chamber ensemble." In so doing, he's opened up lines of communication between two families bound by tragedy after 50 years of silence.
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On the night of April 4, 1968, news was spreading quickly of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, setting off riots in cities across the nation. Clarence Underwood, upon hearing the news, told his wife, "My King is dead." He vowed to kill the first white man he found.
"He leaves the house, there's a man getting off the bus who is white and whose name is John F. Murray, and he lives on the same block as Clarence," Seru said.
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.
"The police catch up with him, he aims his gun at the police, and he says 'Shoot me — they killed my King,'" Seru recounted.
The police fired a warning shot, talked Underwood down, and took him into custody.
Clarence Underwood's daughter, Kelly Hill, was 6 years old, "and I remember the day vividly."
Hill remembers her parents fighting, her dad leaving and then the police coming to the house. She remembers the sirens and lights.
"I was I think too little to comprehend how bad it was," she said. "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."
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 one of his stints in jail he got his barber's license, which he used to open up a barber shop.
"So he was troubled, but he was trying to pull it together," she said.
Davu Seru says Underwood wasn't the only person who wanted revenge that night.
"Most people I talk to say, 'No, that's exactly how I felt that night.' Particularly black men — 'I felt ready to do the same thing, but elders in the community talked us down,'" Seru said.
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.
"He was not the conscious revolutionary that we would like him to have been, that we would have understood better," Seru said.
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's second cousin, John Murray, had been killed.
They were deeply saddened to hear the news, but given the violence of the times, they weren't surprised.
"I had gone through an attempted rape," Linda said. "We had two kids try to burn down our house, I had been caught in gunfire. A few months later Jack's beaten up by people just because he was a white guy in the wrong neighborhood. It wasn't unexpected."
John Murray is survived by two brothers who live in his hometown of La Crosse, Wis. They both declined interviews for this story but said the Hoeschlers could speak on their behalf.
Jack Hoeschler described Murray as an idealist who sometimes "took guff" for hanging out with black students in college. Murray got married in December 1966.
"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," Jack said. "His father said, 'Are you really sure, is that a good idea?' And I think he somewhat naively said, 'Absolutely I'm sure, I'm ready to go,' and wanted to prove this."
In retrospect, Jack said, 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 Seru's project, Linda said, they invited him over for dinner.
"And I said 'You know, unfortunately, Clarence shot the wrong person,'" Linda said. "And he said, 'What do you mean?' And I realized then that he was thinking, probably, so many blacks have been shot and you never said you shot the wrong person — there are a lot of perfectly good other people shot. But it's a tragedy to me that John was trying to prove that living together would work, and he was killed maybe not for that, but because of it, or as a result of that."
Linda said the family was deeply touched that a contingent of north Minneapolis residents showed up in La Crosse for Murray's funeral.
She said his death wreaked havoc on his family:
"There is real pain in everyone's voice today, there is real anguish," she said. "The hurt goes on. It's not over in 50 years, and I think despite their understanding, their forgiveness, they are still wounded and the wound is open."
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. Seru remembers seeing Clarence at Arlene's funeral in 2009.
"And 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," Seru said. "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. And so I thought, 'I wonder what she would have said if she had had an opportunity to respond.'"
Seru said he composed "Dead King Mother" from the point of view of an archetypal mother, inspired by Arlene. For him, blues music is not just about singing sad songs — it's a ritual, a communal remembering of suffering.
"I went to the Gospel tradition, so there are some musical allusions to 'Were you there when they crucified my Lord?' that allude to the sacrifice of both King and Murray that night," he said.
Seru conducted "Dead King Mother" April 4 at the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis. A panel discussion followed and representatives of both families were there.
"I'm taking that story that seemed it 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," Seru explained.
Clarence Underwood died in 2014. Despite his actions on April 4, 1968, his daughter Kelly Hill 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.