ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --
I can remember it like it was yesterday.
It was 50 years ago – April 4, 1968 – the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in my hometown, Memphis.
I was 8 years old. A lot of things changed for me that day.
I knew who Dr. King was – he was our answer. He was the man who would lead Black folks to the Promised Land. He was equality. To me, he saw the world through a different lens – a world where we were valued, where we made a difference, where we contributed to society.
All of that hope in an instant seemed to just stop, abandon us.
I remember my parents’ reactions, the reactions of my older siblings.
But what really was etched in my memory was the aftermath, the anger, the destruction across the city in many underprivileged black neighborhoods. Destruction caused in some cases by my own people.
I remember my father talking to my grandmother, Little Momma, we called her. He wanted to pick her up and bring her back to our house. Little Momma lived in Orange Mound. It wasn’t safe for her – especially that night. She refused to leave her home and told my daddy to stay home.
There wasn’t anything I remember that scared Little Momma. So that night she sat in her house in the kitchen with her shotgun. A man attempted to enter her home through a window and she cocked her shotgun to let him know he didn’t want any of that.
I remember seeing the destruction in Orange Mound. There were businesses burned to the ground including a store we would go to sometimes after church. They burned down so much, but even in their rage, they didn’t burn down our church, Beulah Baptist.
I remember thinking I didn’t even know where the Lorraine Motel was and yet it was the place where Dr. King was murdered. And now the motel is part of the Civil Rights Museum.
I remember how scared I was. I wondered what would happen to our dream, our people.
I remember how mad I was. How could someone so evil take away our leader – crash our dreams? Why would he do that?
I remember the hate. Bomb threats to our schools. My dad worked nights so he was home during the day when the bomb threat was at one of our schools. So my dad got in his station wagon and started picking up me and my siblings. Then he would go back and forth to pick up neighborhood kids – you could do that then just because the school officials knew local parents, and that my dad would get our friends home safe.
I remember Black Mondays (days of economic protests) when we didn’t go to school, and my dad made sure we played in the back yard – not the front yard – so folks wouldn’t be able to hurt us.
I remember MLK speeches all day on WLOK and WDIA local black radio stations. Back then, I could even recite several of those speeches by heart because I heard them so much on his birthday, on his death day.
I remember my parents always being resilient – but even more so after Dr. King’s murder.
My parents never let the dream die – never let us wallow in what happened to the greatest civil rights leader of all time.
They always said that no matter what we did we had to be 150 percent better than others – that we all had to go to college even though they couldn’t pay for six children to do so.
No excuses. We all did. We all graduated. One of us is a doctor and two of us achieved masters’ degrees.
I remember thinking how hard the road would be going forward.
But as I got older I saw changes all around me. Nothing stopped us.
I remember our people achieving more successes – educationally, financially, politically and socially.
I remember our people getting the opportunity to move to more affluent neighborhoods where white people lived and the white flight that ensued – particularly in East Memphis, Germantown, where the running joke became if they continued to do so they’d be living in Mississippi.
I remember when Barak Obama became our first black president.
I remember thinking that I’d never see a black person in the Oval Office.
But what was really different this time is that it took more than black folks to get him there. It took all kinds of people to get him there, various ethnicities, economic statuses and cultural diversities.
I think back to Dr. King’s last speech the night before he was killed in my hometown:
“Well I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Now I think about how we’ve come a mighty long way and how far we still have to go.