50 Years Ago
It was April 4, 1968. My oldest brother’s birthday. Not just any birthday: it was his 10th! We had no money for gifts. We gave licks instead: punches in the arm of your choice — one for each year. There was no greater joy for the 8-year old me than the opportunity to punch my older brother 10 times without fear of reprisal. It was going to be a great day— so I thought.
By the end of the day, the world had changed. A King had died and a Dream was born.
I was standing in my great-Aunt’s living room watching her RCA color console, which she “won” with S&H green stamps, when the news broadcast announced that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis. At that age, I had always associated the South as the place where Black people went missing (or, “fell off the side of the road”, as they would say in my church when one of our church members traveled to the South to visit a relative and was jailed, beaten or lynched).
For some reason, I found it hard to believe that it would happen to Dr. King. I thought that his safety was in his being so public. He had marched with tens of thousands of people on Washington, met with World leaders (including the President of the United States, a really big deal at the time), and he had received the Nobel Peace Prize. If he wasn’t safe, then none of us were. I still remember the shrieked, pain-filled voice of my great-Aunt, fighting through tear-filled eyes, asking “Why did they kill that man? He didn’t hurt nobody.” Her “Why” rings in my ears every time I think of that day.
Today, my oldest brother turns 60. No, I won’t fly to Dayton, Ohio to punch him in the arm 60 times — the 58-year old me finds greater joy in singing “Happy Birthday” to him and hearing about the latest successes of his 7-year old grand-daughter.
My great-Aunt is gone. But, I am thankful to be a beneficiary of the dream of a man who stood tall on a mountain top and proclaimed that while he would not be there with us, we would “get to the other side.” No, his dream is still not fulfilled: Black poverty still exists at morally unacceptable levels, police crimes against young Black men occur with frightening regularity (as does Black on Black crime), and too many of our schools are as segregated as they were in 1968.
Still, 50 years after his death, Dr. King’s Dream challenges each one of us to remember that the only thing that really matters is the content of our character. That which is common in all of us is greater than anything which separates us.
Today, at 7:05 p.m. (Central; 8:05 p.m. Eastern), the moment when Dr. King was pronounced dead, my family will pause for a moment of silence. I ask that wherever you are, you and your family join hands with me and my family, and pause for a moment of silence to remember the man and the Dream for which he died. In that common moment let us consider that we are all beneficiaries of a great man and a life well lived; and let us each accept the challenge to find a way to leave this world a little better than the way it found us.