Remembering the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Raymond was his ordinary self in an ordinary speech class at Kingsbury High School in Memphis on what started as an ordinary April day in 1968.

By early evening, nothing was ordinary.

During that class in this segregated Southern city in this all-white school populated by students of prototype middle-class, Baby Boomer, White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant families, we were discussing Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech delivered the day before.

Raymond, intelligent, witty and brash who craved attention and proudly occupied one of the prime positions among the school’s smart-alecks, suddenly blurted out that he thought the speech was garbage and would probably go downtown and shoot Dr. King that afternoon. He used ugly, profane, shock language.

I confess. Like most in the class, I laughed, shook my head. Typical Raymond. 

I confess. I was taken aback by the language but didn’t think the outburst was any big deal.

Until later.

In the narrow-minded environment we lived in at the time and the culture we experienced daily in our all-white school and churches, Martin Luther King was a troublemaker, a rabble-rouser, one whose last appearance in Memphis had resulted in riots. He was a major irritation to our comfort zone.  

He had returned to Memphis in support of sanitation workers who had been on strike. Not having your garbage picked up for months and having to personally transport it to a central location is a clear recipe for political anger. The typical sentiment in my world was “why should people whose duty it was to pick up our garbage go on strike and not pick up our garbage? They ought to be happy they have a job.”

King’s message of unity and non-violence was obscured by the prejudices of culture and environment and by the color of the person delivering the message. 

Later that evening, I was home lying in bed and listening to music on the radio when the disc jockey broke in with a special announcement that Dr. King had been shot at the Lorraine Motel.

I suddenly raised up, muttering, "Oh my gosh, Raymond really did it! I can't believe he really did it!" That was my first thought. My second was, "He'll probably get expelled for sure for this."

Minutes later, Mom came into my room and asked if I had heard the news about Martin Luther King. "Yeh, and I think I know who did it," I said nervously.

The more I thought about it — and particularly when I learned that Dr. King had died and law enforcement officials were after a fleeing white person — the more I worried. I had thoughts of being interviewed by federal agents and maybe having to testify before Congressional investigators.

The repercussions changed my world, and the world of my friends and classmates:

  • For several weeks, there was a dawn-to-dusk curfew throughout Memphis as the National Guard and local authorities instituted martial law to prevent rioting, which was already occurring in other cities. Barricades and checkpoints were constructed. Church activities, school activities, shopping trips, friends' activities and just-plain cruising had to be cancelled or adjusted.
  • The anxiety and the fear of the unknown and unpredictable permeated the planning and execution of about every aspect of life.
  • We went to school for several days in fear because there were rumors that black kids were going to go to the white schools and riot and burn.
  • My sister was taking driver's education from a police officer. One day, he drove her downtown as far as he was allowed to go and she saw parts of some buildings being burned.
  • Our senior banquet, the equivalent of a prom, at the Holiday Inn Rivermont, a high rise (near what is now the National Civil Rights Museum) with a restaurant on top that overlooked the Mississippi River, was cancelled.
  • Dad bought Mom a tear gas gun to take to her school. Mom was scared, particularly after school officials installed emergency buttons on each teacher's desk in case immediate help was needed. Mother's fears and our fears were somewhat relieved when she learned from her students that they and their parents were just as scared and confused of what was happening as we were.

As weeks went by, tensions were reduced to a cautious but manageable level and many people tried to take pride in reconciliation and made genuine overtures to get along. 

Two-month education I received from Dr. King's assassination still lingers in so many ways and different levels:

My friends and I had to confront directly and from real-time experiences our attitudes, prejudices and fears about race in America. We discovered good people beyond our neighborhood boundaries.

Still shaken from the assassination of John F. Kennedy five years earlier and with the escalating Vietnam War, which would take the lives of a few of our fellow students, we had to deal with a violent society and a violent world. JFK’s assassination was horrific and haunting; King’s assassination in my city was humbling and disconcerting.  There were different emotions. Kennedy was President and nothing like that had happened in our lifetime. King was a leader of a movement, a strong voice among many in the day. There was also a disconnect between the prevailing White culture and King’s followers and their cause. But the assassination happened in my city and there was an emotional attachment of shattered pride to that.

What we considered bedrock beliefs by our mentors and contemporaries were questioned, sometimes shattered. 

Upon reflection today, I am bothered, not just by Raymond’s remarks, but by the resulting laughter and that no one, beside the teacher, challenged him. What he said was tacitly accepted by many as normal and OK. What if a student had made a similar outburst about an African-American leader today? Would the reaction be the same?

The world has changed in significant ways since that day in 1968, which challenged the breadth of our thinking and brought prejudices to an apex, where they could be confronted, tranquilized and pushed beneath the surface.

But did we just create a façade of tolerance to conceal demons that, like a dormant volcano, could suddenly erupt again? 

Did April 4, 1968 help bring about an understanding how to live together as children of God or just postpone the consequences of new realities? 

Why did I laugh at what Raymond said? Why was I not angry? Why upon reflection, didn’t I cry? 

Why do I, almost a half-century removed, remember that audacious proclamation from a smart-aleck?

Forty-nine years later, are we wiser? Are we kinder? Are we less ordinary? 

I hope so. 

David McCollum
Sports Columnist, Conway Log Cabin Democrat
Second Baptist Church, Little Rock
Resides in North Little Rock