I was 7 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. My recollections of that day and the days after haunt me.
My family moved to suburban Washington, D.C., in March 1968, from Marquette, Mich., a small iron ore and college town on the shore of Lake Superior.
The 1968 that many of us experienced missed Marquette, which seemed stuck in 1948. It was and still is mostly white.
In Marquette, you would hear more about deer hunting than politics. The only black-skinned kid I remember at Fisher Elementary School was from Egypt.
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I never heard the n-word in my house. My parents never would have considered themselves as being prejudiced. But I remember that we visited Washington in 1967 before moving there. In the car ride, my mother spoke of a planned King march on the Capitol. She was not happy, and worried about riots.
I spent second grade at Cora Kelly Elementary School in Alexandria, Va. My teacher was a white woman from the South. I had never heard a Southern accent.
The vast majority of the kids were African American. Most, it seemed, lived in apartments, as did I, or in dilapidated townhouses from the turn of the century. I was reading voraciously at age 7. Many of my new classmates couldn’t read.
I woke up on April 5, 1968, to find my mother in the front room with the small black-and-white television on, probably tuned to the “Today” show. She was smoking a Winston and drinking Maxwell House coffee, which was her habit.
“Martin Luther King is dead,” she said, not emotionally. He had been assassinated the evening before on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
I walked to school that day and found many of the children crying. We were sent home early.
A few days later, my father took me up to Rosslyn, to an office building complex where he worked overlooking the District of Columbia.
Dozens of spires of gray and brown smoke from fires twisted into the sky above the largely African American neighborhoods.
I never heard him utter a racist word. But my father’s reaction was to take me to a gun shop, where he purchased a revolver, a Colt .38 special. I recall looking at the pistols in the glass case while he discussed the gun with the clerk.
He was hunter and a marksman in the U.S. Army. But that’s not why he bought this particular weapon.
He kept it under the front seat of his Chevy Impala wagon for years. I still have it, though I keep it locked away.
I recall driving with my parents by Resurrection City, the encampment of thousands of plywood shelters surrounding the reflecting pool on the Washington mall.
Look at them, my mother said. They’re wearing suits and driving Cadillacs.
We have a president whose father was black, whose mother was white, and whose grandfather marched in Patton’s army. But in some ways, racist thinking persists. You don’t have to look far; read the comments section on any news site, or listen to some political candidates. It’s there.
On this King holiday, honor Dr. King. But, more importantly, think about how we can overcome. We haven’t done that quite yet.