A generation ago, and 40-years to this day, at 6:01 pm, a single shot rang out in Memphis, Tennessee, and a sniper’s bullet found its mark. The United States and indeed the rest of the world would later watch, read or listen in horror, as newscasts, newsreels and headlines tolled reports that Nobel Laureate and civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been slain, shot in the neck as he stood on the balcony with his colleagues, preparing to attend an event that evening.
Dr. King had arrived in Memphis only the day before to address a rally where he delivered his famous speech, I Have a Dream. This trip was a scheduled return, since Dr. King had traveled to Memphis at the end of March to support striking black sanitation workers protesting low wages and inequitable working conditions compared to those of their white counterparts. His aim was to form a coalition between labor and civil rights, the first of its kind. But King was not to achieve this in his lifetime.
This time he and his entourage had been late in arriving into Memphis, as their flight was delayed due to a bomb threat. At the end of his speech — which was to be his last — Dr. King had made reference to the bomb threat and its implications, in a chillingly prophetic addendum:
“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
In black communities all over America, a stunned silence enveloped the disbelief and denial that reigned following the news of the slaying. But before the night was over, the assassination sparked a wave of riots in over 100 cities across the nation, as buildings – both abandoned and occupied — were torched, businesses looted, as grief and anger fueled fires as far north as Chicago and Detroit. Thousands were arrested and the death toll reached fifty. For those who mourned, the Dream had died with Dr King.
The identity of his killer is still inconclusive, even after James Earl Ray confessed, was convicted and incarcerated — even after his death in prison ten years ago.
Forty years later, the nation squirmed uneasily as some of the old issues of Dr. King’s day bubbled to the surface, while the activities of the 2008 Presidential nomination reached a fevered pitch. With Senators Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton jostling for the position of Democratic presidential nominee, and with tempers and tensions sometimes overheating, issues of race and gender continue to be shunted from back burner to front, and to back again.But the nation is squaring its shoulders, and both Democratic nominee hopefuls represent a new era in the nation’s history.
It’s 40 years later, and Dr. King’s dream continues to reverberate within the conscience of America.
I asked some folks to share their recollections of April 4, 1968 with us. If you were around at the time and can remember how it affected you, go ahead, share it with us too.
Noel of Emsford, NY remembers:
“I could scarcely keep my mind off dinner when I hopped off the number 2 train at my station in the Bronx. Lunch was a distant memory, and I was beginning to salivate when I thought of the table that awaited me at home. My wife had refused to tell me what was on the menu, so I was giddy just thinking of the endless possibilities from her Jamaican repertoire.
“I moved impatiently with the throng through the turnstile and the exit to a cool evening, around 55 degrees, time 6:45, and the spring in my step soon broke into a run. I had to get away from the crowd and get home to dinner. But as I went passed the lively shops and neighborhood grocery stores, I noticed a few had already closed for the evening. Strange. The shops usually did a brisk business with the after-work crowd. I slowed down. There was indeed a disquieting silence along the street. The children were not playing in their front yards either, on such a cool spring evening as this one. Something was going down.
“With one more block to go, I was beginning to feel lead in my stomach. Did the President die? Were we at war? What else could leave such palpable heaviness, even on the streets? I started running again, and didn’t stop until I got to the front door. Once inside, I threw my hat on its peg and began peeling off my coat assailed by the distinctive aroma of fried plantains, ginger, garlic onions and pimento. Oxtail with rice and peas would be ambrosia to my palate this evening.
“But the heaviness was in my house too, for no wife, no children came rushing to meet me.
“Peeking from the hallway into the living room I saw my wife, eyes glued to the small television set we had. She looked up, got up and moved towards me, and only then did I realize that she was in tears. “They shot King in Memphis, honey”, she stuttered and sobbed as I threw my arms around her. We stood there for awhile, not knowing what to do, not knowing what else to say, as the story unraveled right there on the set. My mouth went dry and my arms were becoming heavier.
“At 6:01 this evening, Civil Rights Leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot. He had been standing on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee…a great man who had spent thirteen years of his life dedicating himself to nonviolent protest…” I was not hearing anymore, so loud was the noise in my head, and wild the heaving in my stomach. I led my wife to the sofa, sat her down and checked on the two children, already asleep in the couch. Then, huddled close together for comfort, in front of the television, we continued to watch in horror as the news of the shooting became news of death. “Slain civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, preached non-violence and was a moral leader to his community. …
“We did not move from the television set, called no one, and the phone did not ring. All over America, the whole nation was watching, some in sadness that turned to fear when the screen showed images of the rioting and looting that ensued in the wake of the assassination. “In outrage of the murder, many blacks are taking to the streets across the country in a massive wave of riots.” As far north as Detroit, the looting and rioting erupted and continued long into the evening.
“It was near ten o’ clock when I realized I hadn’t touched a morsel of food, but my appetite had evaporated in the wave of shock. My wife and I valiantly decided that we would make an attempt to eat, but the meal was bland and my throat not very accommodating. We remained riveted to the news reports.
On that spring night of April 4, we knew an event of great import had taken place, and we felt broken and afraid. Afraid for ourselves, and for our children; we were afraid of the burning and looting in the black neighborhoods, how far it would spread, and how long it would last. We had suffered a great loss, for much of our hope had been deposited in that man. I thought of his wife and his children, and the pain they would surely be going through, compared to mine, to ours.
“At work the next morning, I found my colleagues, black and white, were as shaken as I was, by the incredible event.”
Ena J of Kendall, Fl remembers enough:
“My memory is failing — past 90 these details are liable to slip by sometimes, so I cannot remember who was around me, but I know it was after a day in court. I remember being overcome by a profound sadness and I sat in silence for hours, wondering what would become of the hopes and dreams of such a great man. Everyone was affected for days, even as I conducted the business of the court, I had to consciously keep my mind focused on matters at hand. There was not enough time for me to feel anger at the person who had carried out such a heinous crime. The grief was far too intense.”
Patrick of Chicago was in Jamaica and remembers much:
“We were playng snakes and ladders in the backyard, when I heard Mama calling. It wasn’t with the usual sharp edginess in her voice that preceded a scolding or worse, a flogging for something we had done wrong; she called all three of us and almost as an afterthought, we heard the command, “Come here now”, and we instantly looked at each other, for there was a tremor in her voice. What now?
“She was crying and we were frightened. Pops was not yet home, and the first thought in my thirteen year-old mind was that something had happened. We followed her to her bedroom in silence. My little ten-year old sister began to sob. “Come children”, Mama said as she knelt down by the bed, “pray with me.” Joy looked at me, baffled. I remembered this happening only once before, when President Kennedy was shot, and we didn’t even know him, but we had knelt with her in silence as she prayed and wept. This time she couldn’t get the words out, so I asked, “What happen Mama?” and waited for the paroxyms of grief to subside.
” “They killed Martin Luther King, shot him.” And the sobbing resumed, in tandem with the ten year-old. We knelt there wordlessly, not knowing what do do or say. I was in my first year at high school and Martin Luther King’s leadership in civil rights movement was something I knew about. At home my father and mother would sing Negro spirituals together and talk about Dr. King, as my father had spent years in the US, and was familiar with the signs that said “For Whites Only” and “Coloreds Bathroom” We would be regaled with stories of discrimination and racism, usually on a Sunday after dinner when the family gathered to sing into the mike of a tape recorder he had bought on his travels.
“Mama found her voice and began to pray. She prayed for Dr. King’s family, for his soul, for the soul of man who shot him, and for all the black people in America who now had nobody to stand up for them. In the ensuing silence and in her sadness, we understood that a great tragedy had taken place.”