Forty years ago today, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. David Brooks remembers that day and its aftermath in a NYT column, The View from Room 306.
Most Americans of a certain age remember exactly where they were when they heard that JFK was shot. I was sitting in my third-grade classroom at PS 165 in Manhattan. My teacher, weeping like her colleagues, sent us home early.
Though I was 4-1/2 years older on April 4, 1968, I don't remember what I was doing when the news came out about King. He was shot at 6:01 p.m., so maybe I heard it on the radio, which was always tuned to WGMS (we didn't have a TV). What I do remember is the pervasive sense of fear and impending doom. And that began long before King was shot.
From August 1964 thru summer 1967, we lived in Washington DC, in Mt. Pleasant, the Northwest section now known as trendy Adams Morgan. It's a leafy, peaceful-looking neighborhood, with a mix of houses and massive pre-War apartment buildings. We lived in an apartment on Harvard Street, up a steep hill from the back entrance of the zoo. On early summer mornings, I could hear the lions roaring.
But the neighborhood became progressively less peaceful, and I learned that it wasn't safe to be white. Twice I and my friends were surrounded in front of the candy store on Lanier Place by gangs of black girls our age (no bigger, but a helluva lot tougher), who slapped us around and took our just-purchased goodies. One morning, on the way to Safeway for my mom, I saw some of the same girls hold up a South Asian boy for his money. I scurried away unseen, glad it wasn't me. Another time I was stopped on my way home from school by a group of boys and girls. They wanted to take the typewriter they thought I was carrying, but let me pass unharmed when I opened the oddly shaped case to show that it was only a lunchbox holding a none-too-clean Thermos.
Some nights all the street lights would go out and Harvard Street would be pitch-dark. An 82-year-old woman who lived in our building was dragged from the underground garage by three men and raped in the incinerator room. Up the street, a young white woman was abducted from her car and held in a church basement for many hours, where she was repeatedly raped by some 15 black men, who stood in line to take turns. (Now I'm wondering why, at age 11, my parents let me read that newspaper story.) One summer evening, I went with my stepfather to walk our beagle-mix puppy, and about a dozen black kids encircled us just outside our building, taunting, "Hey, Jew man!"
So in 1967, with me headed for junior high school and my new brother ready for a bedroom of his own (we'd been sharing), we moved to a larger apartment in Silver Spring, MD, just outside the District. I made friends with two black sisters who lived in the building. At school we were in different worlds, but almost every afternoon we'd hang out at their apartment to watch "Dark Shadows" (the only daytime soap I could ever stomach).
And then things started getting strange. My mother, who'd grown up in Chicago during the Depression, started filling up the walk-in hall closet with canned goods and other staples "just in case." She never said in case of what, but for months I knew that something bad was going to happen.
Then King was shot. DC erupted. Our old shopping area, 14th Street, went up in flames. School was canceled for days. There was a pall of smoke over the city. Martial law was declared: No congregating outside in groups of more than three. We stayed inside, except to walk the dog. Mom used the food from the closet. A few days (weeks?) later, we went to the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks (one of my favorite places on the entire planet), and near an ice cream parlor in Georgetown I saw National Guardsmen riding in an open Jeep, holding fixed bayonets. That scared me the most.
Two months later, Bobby Kennedy was killed and the sense of dread came flooding back; also profound grief and loss. Two months after that was the Democratic Convention in Chicago, during which we were on vacation in Bethany Beach, DE. While my mother made dinner, I sat in my sandy bathing suit, and on a little black-and-white TV watched Mayor Daley's cops smash protesters' heads.
A group called Re-Create 68 aims to "recreate that revolutionary feeling and pick-up where our predecessors left off" on the streets of Denver during the Democratic Convention this August. According to its website, "Sometimes we need to look back to move forward."
Not this time. If we keep looking backward, we'll just trip over the many stumbling blocks ahead.