I was ten years when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
I remember the night so vividly. My mother and stepfather had gone to a meeting and my younger brother and I were watching television. It was an episode of “Bewitched” and we were eagerly watching to see how Samantha would, with a combination of charm and magic, extricate herself from another sticky situation.
Suddenly, the episode was interrupted with one of those “Breaking News/News Flash” type of announcements and the newscaster reported that Dr. King had been shot.
Cell phones had not been invented in 1968 and even if they had, we would not have been able to afford one, so I had no way of calling my mother and my stepfather. But because I recognized how important this “news” was, I positioned myself on the end of the sofa closest to the door to await their return.
As soon as mother and stepfather walked into the house, I started telling them about the “news.” Because denial is often the safest emotional haven, my mother began shushing me and saying, “Child, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
But, before she could finish her sentence, another “Breaking News/News Flash” came on and the newscaster began with the words – “Dr. Martin Luther King, winner of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, . . .”
As the newscaster said those words my mother said, “Dear Lord, have mercy. He’s dead!” She then started to cry and my stepfather, who seemed to be choking back his own tears, tried to comfort her.
My mother was (and is) a strong black woman and I had never before seen her cry. Somehow her tears made a tragic situation even worse and my younger brother and I also began to cry.
For the next few minutes, the sounds of our grief and anguish filled the room. Then my mother began to talk about all that Dr. King had done and to wonder what would become of his work and his dream. As the endless newsreels of his speeches began to play, I also wondered what would become of his work and his dream.
Though Greenville, Georgia, was far removed from any of the places where Dr. King had led nonviolent protests, we had felt the impact of his work and his dream. We had seen black people, who had not been able to vote before, vote in the 1964 presidential election and the 1966 gubernatorial election. We had seen the disappearance of the “white” and “colored” signs marking public water fountains and entrances to bus stations. We had dared to believe in Dr. King’s dream and to hope and pray that my younger sister, who was only a year old, would never be called the “N” word and would never know the pain of being discriminated against because of the color of her skin. Now that dream seemed to be shattered.
We watched the news clips of black neighborhoods across the country where the grief and anguish and anger over the news of Dr. King’s death, at the hands of a white man, exploded into rioting. We understood their grief; we understood their anguish; we understood their anger. We were feeling the same way. The man who had espoused nonviolence and who had inspired such hope in many of us had been killed by a violent act.
Then my mother began to pray. When my mother prays, she really talks to God. As we sing in the Black Baptist church, she “tell[s] him all about [her] troubles.”
That night, she prayed first for comfort and strength for Mrs. Coretta Scott King, Yolanda, Martin III, Dexter, and Bernice. Then she prayed for strength and guidance for black people. She ended her prayer with praying for strength and unity for the entire nation. As she prayed, I was struck by her repetition of a variation on a line from another song in the Black Baptist church that “[we] [could not] turn back now” because “[God had] brought [us] too far to leave [us].”
I look back on the child I was then and I see how the tragedy of that night helped to shape the woman who I am now. I lost a lot of my innocence that night, but in listening to my mother’s prayers, I fortified my faith in God and gained a new understanding of the value of persistence. That combination is what compels me to activism and to do my part to bring Dr. King’s dream into fruition. I challenge you to do the same.