Forty years ago I was a freshman at Northwestern University. Many of my friends called me “Tennessee,” because I was from Memphis and had a Southern accent, which was as exotic to their ears as their Midwestern and Eastern accents were to mine. Most of those friends are friends to this day. And I know that none of us will forget that terrible spring of 1968.
Martin Luther King was in Memphis to support the sanitation workers strike. Growing up in Memphis, the “garbage men” came every week to take away our trash. They made 25 cents an hour. The dogs chased and bit them. I have read that they shook maggots from rotting garbage out of their clothes at night.
Many of the fine residents of Memphis considered the striking workers to be part of the vast communist conspiracy bent on burying America, as Krushchev had promised, emphasized by pounding his shoe on a conference table. Many of the fine white residents of Memphis were either avowed or covert racists. I have of course written about this in my novel Mr. Touchdown. And I’ve also blogged about the time I was caught up in the March Against Fear and had a face-to-face moment with Stokely Carmichael.
But I’ve never written about the shame I felt that night when the news about King’s assassination hit the television like nothing had since President Kennedy’s assassination a mere five years before. I was from Memphis. I was white. The Lorraine Motel was just around the corner from the train station where I boarded the train to Hardy, Ark., and the summer camp I adored and where I spent as much time as I possibly could. I also caught the City of New Orleans at that station and rode down to the Big Easy to stay with my good friend’s cousins and had Hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s when I was only fifteen. I knew the neighborhood well.
The assassin was said to have fled in a light-colored Mustang (which is preserved in the National Civil Rights Museum). I knew a guy from high school–crazy, racist–who drove a Mustang. I was shaking with fear that it was him. And one of my dearest friends was African-American. She had already led protests at Northwestern against discrimination. I loved her. I had become radicalized. But I had my roots in the segregated South. My grandfather used the n-word to refer to blacks until the day he died, stubbornly, because he saw nothing wrong with it.
I was shaken with grief and shame and fear. And of course two months later Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. When I became a reporter, I worked in Connecticut and talked to many people who remembered staying up until well after midnight waiting for Bobby Kennedy to arrive for a rally in Waterbury, Conn., a rough mill town. They held candles and waited. And they weren’t disappointed. They remembered it twenty years laters with tears in their eyes.
I remember one of the nights when I was falling in love with my husband here in Washington, D.C.. We were at the Hawk and Dove on Pennsylvania Ave., letting our legs touch under the bar. He and another friend of ours from UPI were talking about 1968 and what it would have been like to be an adult that year, and I didn’t admit that I had just turned 19 when King was assassinated. I was in college, a conscious person, but I didn’t want them to know how old I was. And I fell farther into love with my soon-to-be husband, because despite his tough and snarly personna, he got tears in his eyes talking about King and Kennedy.
I have since done events with Mr. Touchdown at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. It is an extraordinary place, which everyone should visit. I can’t go in without crying. It’s laden with the pain and triumph of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s gritty and real and terrifying.
It honors a time and a man and a movement that changed America–and me–forever, for better.