Wednesday, April 4, 2018, marked the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The memorials in Dr. King’s honor have varied, and the participants who spoke to multiple media outlets have had a wide range of emotions. For me, it has been a painful reminder of a past that is all too real in our present.
I was 21 and coming near the end of a year I could never have imagined I would experience. Named a Merrill Overseas Travel Study Scholar while a student at Morehouse College, I spent what would have been my senior year studying at the University of Vienna through the Institute of European Studies. It was the first time I had lived away from home and the first time I had traveled outside the United States.
On April 5th, 1968 I awoke to a beautiful spring day. I dressed and went to the kitchen of the large apartment where I lived with an Austrian family to eat my regular continental breakfast before beginning my 15 to 20-minute walk to the Kinsky Palace where my classes were held. As usual, I turned on the radio to listen to the news in German as a way of strengthening my German language skills that after six months of total immersion had become reasonably proficient. However, I could not believe what I thought I heard as the morning headline. Did the announcer say that Dr. King had been murdered? There had to be a mistake. I must have missed understood “ermordet”.
My mind was confused; my thoughts jumbled as I anxiously awaited the announcer to return to the microphone so I could hear the true story. It did not take long for the confusion about what I had heard to be clarified. I had heard correctly. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was indeed dead. He had been killed by an assassin while I slept on my fold down sofa bed thousands of miles away from Memphis.
Despite my scarce financial resources that demanded that I not wear dress shirts and suits except when necessary due to the cost of dry cleaning that would destroy my now $7.00 a week budget, I remember returning to my room in almost a trance-like state. I changed into a suit, dress shirt and tie and headed to campus.
Caught between disbelief and despair, tearful sorrow and rage, I walked down the streets and past the shops on the way to the palace without speaking. I had walked that same way for months and had joyfully exchanged greetings and well wishes with the merchants and people I passed, but not that Friday. Oblivious to my surroundings my mission was to seek out the five other African American students in the program. I needed to tell them what had happened and if they already knew, I needed to be with persons who would truly know the mix of emotions that I was experiencing. I needed a community of fellow sufferers who like me were away from home at a time when I felt I needed to be with my people.
I found the African American students gathered together with a few Caucasian friends. I could tell by their demeanor that they had not heard the news. There was no way to soften the blow, so I bluntly announced that Dr. King had been shot and killed while in Memphis the night before. The reaction to the news was instantaneous. The pain was visceral, and the anger was so intense that all but two of the White students felt they needed to vacate our space. We were all between the ages of 20 and 22. Most of us had lived in the segregated South for all our lives or for an extended period of time. We were all students at either Morehouse or Spelman. We were all familiar with the viciousness of White racism, and we knew that Black and White Civil Rights leaders had died in the struggle. But the death of King was somehow different. We did not all agree with his methods, nor with his ideology but we universally respected him. If nothing else he had put himself on the firing line. He did not ask others to do what he would not do. He was a man of integrity. Now the symbol of our quest for justice, equality and full inclusion was dead.
The next day, April 6, 1968, we left for the two week trip to Italy that was part of the travel-study program. The first four or five days were an emotional roller coaster. European newspapers made it seem like every city, town and hamlet in America was going up in flames due to widespread rioting. At times it was hard to focus on the artistic and cultural treasures of cities and towns we visited on our journey to Rome because it was hard to know what was happening in America. Some of our White colleagues did not seem to know what to say, so they avoided us. A few tried to express their sympathies but they did not seem to understand that King’s death was also their loss. Only three or four demonstrated the kind of empathy that the situation required.
When we finally arrived in Rome a day or two before Good Friday we were able to get U.S. newspapers that at least gave a fuller picture of what was occurring. Our grief was no less nor did we feel any less isolated. I still wished I could have been back in Atlanta where I could have fully embraced my grief and all the other emotions I felt. However, that was not possible, so I sought the consolation and kinship of those who were with me, especially those whose skin color and experience of racism helped us understand each other.
I am not sure I ever had the chance to fully grieve the death of “the drum major for justice.” However, it is sad to know that the struggle is still all too real and that the racism and hatred that killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fifty years ago is still alive and well in all too many places in our country. Rather than worry about whether I will ever get over my experience of fifty years ago, my commitment must be to making the changes that will make Martin’s death truly beneficial. My work and the work of ITC must be to produce leaders who will help bring on the day when we “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”