Monday, April 4, 2011

April 4, 1968 @ 6:01 PM Eastern

Our house in Swarthmore, PA
The Big Back Porch
It was April 4th, 1968 in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. I was 5 years old. I remember playing with my friends on that warm, spring afternoon.  We lived in a big, old Victorian home on a big lot and our world was safe and calm.

I had been playing outside with friends that afternoon after school. We would run around the neighborhood, things seemed safer then, neighbors were friendly and caring. Nobody had put razor blades in apples yet (urban myth, BTW) and the news wasn't filled with Amber Alerts.  But there was tension.

The nation was embroiled in a foreign war that became the very definition of quagmire. I remember my parents discussing how Johnson hadn't done what he promised and gotten America out of Vietnam. We were still sending troops by the thousands to fight a war that it seemed that nobody wanted.  At least nobody in my parent's circle of friends which consisted of mostly smart academics from Swarthmore and the University of Pennsylvania.

My mom was pregnant at the time with what would eventually be my sister Rebecca.  My sister Karen had been born the previous summer and, my mom being a working mom, we had a wonderful housekeeper named Mrs. Boydston. She was a large African-American woman who in the house, up on the 3rd floor of that old house.  She was a constant presence in my childhood.  Housekeeper, nanny, and cook. She used to tell us stories about growing up in the deep south and how she had moved to Philadelphia with her parents back in the 1940s to escape the racism and discrimination of the Jim Crow south.

Meanwhile, 1,000 miles west of our little corner of Pennsylvania, in Memphis Tennessee, a community organizer, minister and civil rights leader was preparing to aid African-American sanitation workers to organize a union with the help of AFSCME.  He had been warned of possible violence against him personally and against his colleagues.  But, like Gandhi before him, he was undaunted by the threats.  His words just the day before were prophetic and profound.
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. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
On April 3rd, this young minister, the subject of so much government harassment and hatred, had delivered a speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop" at the Masonic Hall in Memphis.

James Earl Ray
It would prove to be his last speech.  On April 4th, 1968, at 6:01pm "a shot rings out in the Memphis sky" and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was taken from us by a sniper's bullet fired by James Earl Ray, a dedicated right-wing racist and Klansman.

In an era before the 24 hour news cycle, the news of the assassination reached our house in Swarthmore with remarkable rapidity. The phone rang, it must have been around 7:00pm. I was in the kitchen with Mrs. Boydston and my little sister Karen.  I heard my mother speaking on the phone and saying "No, No, NO" over and over again. She hung up the phone and came into the kitchen with tears in her eyes.

Moments after the shot was fired
"They killed Dr. King," she said quietly. "They shot him in Memphis."

Mrs. Boydsten looked down as her tears formed a quiet pool on the table.

Bobby Kennedy spoke that night about the assassination of Martin Luther King, saying

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge. 
We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization -- black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

Two months later, Bobby Kennedy would be murdered by another assassin outside a hotel in California and my parents would seriously consider emigrating to Canada in the wake of the escalating right-wing violence in America.

Later that night, April 4th, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Joni Mitchell, Al Kooper and Ted Nugent met up for an all night blues, folk and rock session at The New Generation Club, New York after hearing the news of Martin Luther King's assassination.

Then in 1984, for me, the most moving tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. was released by the Irish band U2.  I still get chills... and the tears still well up when I think about what they did, these progenitors of today's Tea Party movement, these racists, these haters, these moral eunuchs who could abide no resistance from an "uppity nigger."

Pride (in the name of love)

One man come in the name of love 
One man come and go 
One come he to justify 
One man to overthrow 

In the name of love 
What more in the name of love 
In the name of love 
What more in the name of love 

One man caught on a barbed wire fence 
One man he resist 
One man washed on an empty beach. 
One man betrayed with a kiss 

In the name of love 
What more in the name of love 
In the name of love 
What more in the name of love 

(nobody like you...) 

Early morning, April 4 
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky 
Free at last, they took your life 
They could not take your pride 

In the name of love 
What more in the name of love 
In the name of love 
What more in the name of love 
In the name of love 
What more in the name of love... 


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