Over the past two nights, I’ve been watching a special on public television about the Black church.
I am not Black. I do not attend a Black church.
I admit to loving gospel music and Black history.
I participated in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
But tonight’s episode showed footage of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., someone whom I idolized and dreamed of meeting back in the 1960s. I listened to his words, once again–words I’ve heard time and time again over these many decades, reminded, once again that he was in Memphis to work to bring dignity to the garbage workers of the city. They were all Black. They were underpaid and undervalued. They needed an advocate. Dr. King was the one they needed. He spoke eloquently, as always, on their behalf, making the case that these men were, indeed, men–just as they declared on the placards they carried: “I AM A MAN.”
From the time the first slaves were imported into this country in 1619, they were not considered men. They were considered animals, incapable of feeling, incapable of emotion, snatched from their native land and brought to this one as beasts of burden. Dr. King knew the truth and said said.
It got him killed.
Tonight’s show once again revisited his assassination as he stood on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in April 1968.
Once again, I was transported back to that night. I was a sophomore at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, at the other end of the state from Memphis. Just 20 years old and still hopeful that Dr. King, who was 19 years older than I, could accomplish so much more than he already had, I found myself in full breakdown at Sophronia Strong Hall. I was far from my Boston home (although I was born in Tennessee), and I couldn’t wait to get out of the state in which he died.
Tonight, nearly 53 years after he died, I still cry when I see the details of his death, the details leading up to his death, and the reasons for the hatred behind those bullets.
Fifty-three years later, I see simmering evidence of hatred rising up to the surface, as well as outright racism and prejudice against poor people of all races. I hear prominent politicians make pejorative statements about poor people needing to “pick themselves up by their bootstraps,” which is pretty difficult when you have no bootstraps to begin with.
Fifty-three years ago, we had no pandemic hanging over our heads. I was young and idealistic, though, and hoped that Dr. King would lead us to a better place. Instead, he was cut cut when he was only 39, followed a couple of months later by then presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.
The Lorraine Motel has now become part of the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. If you’re ever in Memphis, you owe it to yourself to visit the museum. When you’re at the end of the tour, you’re in the same room in which Dr. King was staying on the night he was killed. I’ve been there several times. Each time, I came out crying, re-living that night once again.
My advice if you visit: bring Kleenex.