The end of a violent year

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At the end of 1968 a poet and an artist looked back on a tragic year. Part of a series on U.S. Catholic's 75th anniversary.

The December 1968 issue of U.S. Catholic is the only one that turned a poem into a cover story. Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize and for 32 years the poet laureate of Illinois, wrote "Astonishment of Heart" for the magazine, a haunting elegy that reflected the pain and mood of the times.

The 1968 assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.-along with the earlier ones of John F. Kennedy (1963), civil rights leader Medgar Evers (1963), and Malcolm X (1965)-had indelibly marked the national psyche.

In a cover story titled "The End of a Violent Year," the editors paired the poem with several illustrations by Chicago artist Franklin McMahon, who for many years contributed illustrations and documented events for U.S. Catholic-from the Second Vatican Council and bishops' meetings to a papal visit and the Parliament of the World's Religions.

Brooks' poem would later be included in her anthology In Montgomery: And Other Poems (Third World Press).

Astonishment of Heart

The Lord shall smite thee
with madness and blindness
and astonishment of heart.
-The Bible

Robert. John.
Medgar. Malcolm. Martin L.

We are our end and our beginning.
Ourselves we clog, immobilize; ourselves we kill.
We are our end and our beginning still.

There was a thick roaring in the forest.
High muttering through the trees.
And we shook at what Others had told us
of monsters crouched in the mysteries.

Snorts. Rasps. Harsh halloos.
Flickering eyes.
The padding of impatient paws.
The monsters would maul us efficiently,
sink in us teeth mottled, and crusted with blood.
It was enough to chill more experienced children!

But we shook our heads. We withdrew. We would not believe.
After all, we were Handsome, and we had always Withstood.

Our faces were clean, our nails were polished and long;
and we had been playing our games, and we were languorous,
and our eyes were dulled with cigarette smoke and our mouths with song.

Finally they stepped, the monsters, out of the darkness,
ate some of our kind.
The monsters, stepping out of the darkness,
ate some of our kind. They were quite what the Others had said.

And they were the Others.
And they
resembled ourselves.

It was Truth. It was not a nightmare
with waking to wait for and coffee-and-Danish in bed.

-Gwendolyn Brooks