When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, I’d already lost my violence virginity. His murder was an unbelievable blow to what I perceived the future of African Americans to be at the time, but I had already been assaulted by the unthinkable. It was in 1963. November 22. I was finishing lunch in the cafeteria at Eastern High School in Baltimore, dreading going to geometry. It had to have been the worst class I had in my life. And to make it even “worser,” it was my Grandmother who’d had geometry 50 years prior who helped me get it. Embarrassing. But helpful.
Just as we were walking from the cafeteria to the classroom, the principal, William Bader, announced in his usual monotone voice, “Girls, it has just been announced that President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas. Continue to your classes and we’ll share news as we get it.” Or something like that. There was nothing in my mental history to compare to that moment. The only people I’d known to be shot had died from their wounds. Charles Richardson. A young neighbor killed by a white bus driver. I don’t think I knew about Medgar Evers back then, although he’d been assassinated June 12 of the same year.
By the time we settled in for class, the familiar static sounded Bader’s return. “Girls, the president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, is dead.” Or something like that. It was the first time I felt as if my whole being went numb. I felt as if I had entered some kind of altered state that kept me from feeling what was going on. We were summarily dismissed from school and walked the long way home in silence. We never walked in silence. Did I mention it was an all girls school? You could hear us coming a mile away. But that day there was nothing to say because we had nothing to compare to what had just happened.
So the assassination of Dr. King was traumatic, but I was no longer a virgin. I had already experienced the entire world shutting itself down to mourn such a horror. I already knew what it was like to feel a wreath on the morning’s horizon and a crepe on the world’s door. It seemed that the community I knew banded together to try to survive life without Dr. King. To try to push through with whatever each perceived the struggle to be, because we knew neither the battle nor the war was over. We knew the fight had to continue. But we didn’t know how.
But before we could redirect ourselves, the riots broke out in many urban spots, including Baltimore. I lived next door to a corner store so we had our own National Guardsmen posted in front of the house so no one could set a fire in the store. It was unnerving to see military vehicles and men and women right in our neighborhoods until the anger redirected itself. Until the sense of futility set in. Until it became clear that setting one’s hair on fire, though appropriate, wouldn’t make any difference at all.
And the entire nation, those who loved him and those who didn’t, once again, shut down for a period of national mourning. There were no television programs except worship services and music. Regular programming didn’t resume until after the formal services for him were complete.
It was hard to imagine 50 years ago that hatred could take such awful measures to ensure its win. It was hard to imagine that the little King children would be without their father for the rest of their lives. It was hard to imagine that Dr. King’s reward for the sacrifices he had made to demand justice for people who deserved no less, was his own assassination.
Which makes it doubly hard to see the same battles being fought today, that were fought and seemingly won 50 years ago. Grandmothers of similar ages can’t vote NOW because they no longer drive, and a license is the only acceptable state identification. College students who can’t vote for the same reason. To see people, once again, being denied the right to vote. That’s why we still need the Voter’s Rights Act. To keep states who would, from backtracking standards of protection so every eligible citizen can vote.
Dr. King would not be pleased to see the same numbers of people without jobs that he fought to gain jobs for. He would not be pleased to see HBCUs denied funding to protect them from program duplication and financial demise. He would not be pleased to see minorities still excluded from class rooms, board rooms and political seats of power. He would not be pleased to see the prevalence of police brutality against minorities, especially Black men in this country.
He would not be pleased.
He would not be pleased to know that the same violence that ripped life from his body pervades this country from the school house to the church house and exponentially on urban streets.
He would not be pleased.
He would not be pleased to see a Congress that finds no way to do the job it’s paid to do because party power is more important than the wellbeing of this country.
He would not be pleased.
We are not pleased. Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Please, God. Let it be so and let it be shown.
And so we remember.
April 4, 1968