It’s time to Break It Down!
The afternoon of Sunday March 31, 1968 was a special day. I was at church. Though, being a PK, that is not what made it special. I was in church nearly every Sunday morning, and more Sunday afternoons than I can count. Lots of Sunday nights too. That’s just what preacher’s kids did circa 1968.
Yet, this was a special Sunday. For a young man sharing the salad days of my teen years, growing up in the South during the unpredictable, and ever changing days of the civil rights movement, I was on the verge of, or so I thought I was, meeting the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Despite how it is often portrayed, the civil rights movement was not just one thing, but a fluid, and complex compendium of actions, circumstances, and events. Notwithstanding any of that, no single individual ever soared higher in the movement’s operational apparatus than did Dr. King. Yes, he moved around throughout an organically evolving circuit from Atlanta, to Montgomery, to Albany (GA), to Birmingham, to Washington, DC, to Selma, to Chicago, to Memphis, promoting a series of non-violent protests, meanwhile, in his spare time, he spawned a Poor Peoples’ Campaign, and an Anti-War Campaign to protest the War in Vietnam.
Back to that 5thSunday in March 1968. That afternoon, I went to a small African American church in Washington, NC; Little Washington, as it’s affectionately called, not to be confused with the District of Columbia. I was there for a Civil rights rally. There was a long line of dignitaries and luminaries on the itinerary. When the program reached that point, at which the penultimate speaker was scheduled to take the mic, The Rev. Dr. Reginald Hawkins emerged. He gave a powerful and compelling oration. I was there; I witnessed it. But in all honesty, I do not remember a thing he said after he apprised the assembly that Dr. King, who was to be the final speaker, was not able to attend that day. As an aside, by way of context, at the time, Dr. Hawkins was an active candidate, running for the Governorship of North Carolina; the first African American to do so. He noted that Dr. King had been called to Memphis, where he was engaged in an active role in mass meetings, and street actions (often a euphemism for marches), related to trying to resolve the Sanitation Workers Strike in Memphis, Tennessee.
It’s difficult to find adequate, or appropriate for that matter, words to describe the level of my disappointment…even all these many years later. I was disconsolate. I didn’t cry; but it wasn’t out of the question. My frustration was palpable. It actually still is. Really!
A few days later, Thursday evening, April 4, 1968, at around dinnertime, I was watching the news with my family. In the middle of the broadcast, the newscaster interrupted his regular reporting to announce that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a moment in time, like a number of others, where one remembers where they were, and/or what they were doing when they heard the news. It seemed like there were a lot of those moments in the 60’s. JFK, Malcolm X, MLK, and Robert Kennedy, were all killed between 1963 and 1968.
Today is the 50thAnniversary of Dr. King’s murder. All the men noted at the end of the previous paragraph were legendary. They were giants in their respective fields of endeavor. Without reservation, I readily admit, King’s life and his work influenced me more than the others. So did his death.
My 14-year-old mind, at the apex of its elastic powers of imagination, instantly transported me back to the previous Sunday afternoon, in that small, jam-packed, non-air conditioned, and sweltering edifice. I thought…if only Dr. King had opted to come to Washington, NC, rather than go to Memphis. In the vortex that was my mental gymnastic, Dr. King could have avoided, or at least delayed the premature termination of his life’s journey, and work, I would have seen, and possibly even met him, and if there were an anniversary today, it would have some other significance.
Of course that’s what I thought at 14. Perhaps it was selfish and self-absorbed. OK, so it was selfish and self-absorbed! Fifty years later, not much has changed. At least, not much has changed on some level.
In all fairness, today, I do very much appreciate the work, and the enormous sacrifice Dr. King made throughout his career. His trip to Memphis turned out to be, for him, the ultimate sacrifice. Humbly, and sincerely, I thank him for all of his service. However, none of that persuades me to regret the fact that he was taken from us far too soon. Upon sober reflection, I’d gladly have forgone even the intent for him to have visited and appeared in Little Washington, just for him to have the opportunity to continue to operate as the head of the spear of the civil rights movement. I would love for the generations that followed him to have benefited from his continuing to dispense wisdom and counsel.
We are frequently told the universe has every answer that we could ever need. The logical extension of that reasoning is, Dr. King was the answer for a given point in time. He came, he saw, he provided a range of answers to a series of questions during his time. He graduated from high school and matriculated at Morehouse at 15, he earned a Ph.D., he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he gave the most quoted speech at the March On Washington, he orchestrated the Selma to Montgomery March, he was an often published author, he made the Birmingham Jail famous, he elevated the plight of the poor (in the richest nation in the world), he stood against a war in Southeast Asia, and…he had a dream. He did all this, a-n-d, he died for the cause…all before turning 40 years of age.
We largely remember Dr. King in triumphant, even if tragic, fashion. Yet befor he died, he was unpopular, much maligned, and frequently demoralized. Still, in the classic spirit of the Alpha man he was, King was resolutely forward-focused. Backward was simply not a word in his otherwise extensive vocabulary.
As I have written about before, including in January of his year, his birthday became a holiday. But in this post, I choose instead to memorialize a day that has lived in infamy for me personally, for the past 5 decades. “I Remember When: 50 Years Ago Today!”
I’m done; holla back!
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