I simply have no recollection of the day that Dr Martin Luther King was gunned down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on the 4th April 1968. I was twelve.
This is odd because of the fact that I had begun to have an interest in what was going on in the world. I don’t remember when I first knew of him and his work or the tragedy of his untimely death but, having scanned the archives of the conversations with my father, there is silence. Maybe I have mis-remembered but it is noticeable I remember the Arab-Israeli Six Day War the year before, the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets in August 1968 and the countless conversations around the assassination of JF Kennedy, obviously stirred up because of his brother’s death by an assassin in June 1968.
I come to only one conclusion. In my little white world in a faraway white settler community that had decided to declare unilateral independence*, black lives did not matter and, for this, I feel shame. What King had done and was doing mattered enormously and his death was horrific and yet it passed me by without a murmur.
When ever I teach the Civil Rights movement, I play the video of Dr King’s words the day before he died and I am always moved emotionally. I think of how my twelve year old self lost out on all of this:
Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights. And so just as I said, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around. We aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.
And then the words, just before he left the stage, choke me up – that deep, resonate voice saying, ‘And I’ve seen the promised land’:
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 tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Although there is no memory of any conversation about the assassination at the time, I want to somehow acknowledge Dr King’s passing when I was twelve and to say out loud, it mattered more than anything else in that momentous year of nineteen sixty eight.
* Ian Smith seized power from the British government in a coup d’etat to ensure white rule continued in Rhodesia on the 11th November 1965