Friday, April 04, 2008

1968: Once was enough, thanks

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.


Polly Kahl said...

First of all, I can't believe how prolific you are considering you're bedridden with back spasms. I've having hip surgery next week and I hope I can follow your example after a few days. Laying around is tough for those of us who are active and interested in life.

I was also sitting in my third grade class when we got the news about JFK, in the Massachusetts Berkshires. Our stoic teacher, Mrs. Ryan, was called out into the hall by another teacher, who whispered hurriedly to her. Mrs. Ryan was crying by the time she came back into the room, and we were all shocked to see a teacher cry. We didn't even know they went to the bathroom. Mrs. Ryan told us we were all going home early and that our President had been shot and killed.

I don't remember crying about the President being shot. What made me cry was all the adults crying around me. Adults walked around crying uncontrollably in school, on the street, and downtown, and yet everything was silent. It was shocking and frightening. It felt like the world was ending.

Unfortunately, like you, I remember little about MLK's death. The town I lived in had two drug stores, one for the whites and one for the Negroes. (My family was advanced because we used the word Negro, not the other lower-class word used by so many townspeople back then.) I learned more about Martin Luther King dead than alive. I do remember Bobby's death, but JFK's passing was by far the most traumatic of the three in my little New England town.

Obviously you've stimulated my memory with your post. I've enjoyed you for some time on BkSp but just started reading your blog about a couple of weeks ago. Thanks for the interesting variety of topics.

Bella Stander said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Polly!

After 3 days of bed rest & Valium, followed yesterday by the masterful manipulations of osteopath extraordinaire Jonathan Singer, I am once more able to:
1) stand up straight
2) walk without a cane
3) sit at my desk (for a while, anyway; I think the bed is calling again).

jenny gardiner said...

It's interesting, this notion that it could be repeated. I actually think there's too much apathy in our country for it to happen again, barring some sort of mob mentality triggering something. However, I will say that my almost 18-y/o son--an Obama supporter, very politically savvy, and of course part of the generation who feels so enormously empowered by Obama and the hope that he represents--recently said that he thinks riots will break out if Hillary wins the nomination through backdoor-dealing with Super Delegates. Yet once again these young adults will feel helplessness and disenfranchisement and that could well threaten to boil over. Scary, isn't it?

Amolosh said...

Hi Bella:

Good blogging! Keep it up. Although a return to 1968 may sound bad to you, the sixties will always be the Good Old Days to me (the present prudently excepted), and I'd dearly love to revisit them. When I heard the news that JFK had been shot, I was walking down Great Portland Street in London on my way to a party with a band of friends. I don't remember much about MLK's assassination, because I was living in Athens by then and America and its politics seemed very remote. The Greek dictatorship was coming up to its first anniversary, and we were fascinated by the Prague Spring ( We went to Crete, that year, as I recall, where the Afrikaans writer Jan Rabie ( he didn't look like that when I knew him!) and his wonderful wife Marjorie Wallace were living at the time. A bunch of us took a neighboring house in the village of Elounda, near the Venetian fortress island of Spinalonga ( There were hardly any tourists in those days. Jan advised me not to become a writer on grounds that it wasn't worth the tax hassles. But I had already taken the fatal step--my first book, A Beast in View, was published later that year (and immediately banned in South Africa).
We in Charlottesville think fondly of you and hope you are now over the worst. May the coming year will find you better than ever!