It was a Thursday. I don't remember it particularly. We probably began the day the same way we always did -- with the pledge of allegiance and the Star-Spangled Banner. This is the post-Madelyn Murray O'Hair era; there was not prayer or even a moment of silence. And there were black people in my classes. I didn't know any other time or any other way. I remember in particular my friend Herman. We shared classes first through fourth grades and our dads were good friends. I didn't know a time when Herman and I would have been separated; when we would have been in different classes or different schools. I didn't know that there was a time where my dad and his dad would have not been friends.
LBJ had just announced that he would not be running for president in the upcoming election. He was a man run down by the strife in the country; strife about Vietnam -- strife swirling around race relations. His decision to not run was not one made lightly nor was it a "giving up." In fact, his decision rejuvenated him. He had decided to be bold; to do bold things during his remaining months. He had begun working on a speech about the Civil Rights Act.
1968 was an momentous year for me -- it started with the second and ended with last season of Star Trek. All my life I have loved Star Trek. But life in 1968 was not all about strange new worlds. There was violence in our world Americans were involved in Vietnam. Every night I would hear Huntley and Brinkley tell us how many young men had died that day in Vietnam. It was my "normal" -- I grew up listening to these reports of war. 1968 saw the Tet Offensive and the Battle of Saigon. Later in that year, my Grandfather would die -- on December 21. Christmas was never quite the same after that. On Christmas day, we heard the book of Genesis read from outer space, as Apollo 8 circled the moon.
But months earlier on April 4, at 8:01 am Eastern time, Apollo 6 was the rocket we were all watching. After the tragedy of Apollo 1, unmanned capsules were sent up -- two of them and Apollo 6 was the second. In an odd twist of fate, for several years I had my office within mere feet of the Apollo 6 capsule.
However, it was a trajectory of a different sort that caused world to skew on it's axis. Not a rocket, it was a small piece of metal fired from a 30 ought 6 deer hunting rifle that caused change in the world.
Ten hours after the Apollo 6 lifted off, at 6:01 pm, James Earl Ray (allegedly) shot Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. King was running behind schedule; he was originally to have left Memphis the day before, but his plane had been grounded for a while by a bomb threat. He had just shaved with Magic Shave Powder and was getting ready for the evening, talking about dinner and enjoying the companionship of his friends. The bullet entered his baby smooth, lightly scented right cheek, traveled down his spinal column and lodged in his shoulder. An act of violence, a violation of his life, King was a man of peace. This was a man of integrity; one who followed Jesus; one who subscribed to nonviolent acts of civil disobedience. His last words were something to the effect, "Ben make sure you play Take My Hand, Precious Lord in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty."
In the days that followed there were riots in over 125 American towns and cities. Primary to these were the riots in Washington, Baltimore, Louisville and Chicago. There were hundreds of of stores looted and burned. It is estimated that almost $400 million dollars were lost (in today's dollars) to the looting and burning. There was even a shootout between the Black Panthers and the Oakland police on April 6. I don't remember the violence and the riots. I do remember the national day of mourning and his funeral in Atlanta. LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act on April 11, 1968 without giving his Civil Rights speech that he had worked so hard on. The assassination of MLK took the wind out of his sails.
There are times I wonder what the world would be like if Martin Luther King Jr. had not been assassinated. I think about King's nonviolence -- his "turn the other cheek" attitude and I think of his freshly shaved cheek ravaged by an assassin's bullet. I think of his last speech:
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.I think of Ralph David Abernathy holding his friend's head murmuring, "Martin, it's all right. Don't worry. This is Ralph. This is Ralph." I think of the song, "Take my hand, Precious Lord, Lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light." I think of a man who just wants to do God's will.
I think of a President who said that week, "I ask every citizen to reject the blind violence that has taken Dr. King who lived by non-violence." I think of my Dad and his friend, who happened to be black. I think of a little white girl who didn't know of a world where little black boys couldn't eat with little white girls. I hope we have come far. We still have far to go. There are still storms; there are still fears in the night. As a people I do believe we will see the promised land. As a people of God, I do believe we can live in nonviolence together if we pray and ask to be led to the light. I do believe.