Remembering Martin Luther King’s Assassination 50 Years Ago

Race Relations: Are We Smarter Than 8th Graders?

April 4, 1968 had been a good day for me. My eighth-grade school year was winding down, the sun was staying up later, and my friends and I played basketball at an asphalt court til our moms made us come home. We lived in Union County, Kentucky, about four or five hours from Memphis, and it was already warm.

It was a racially diverse staff housing area a few miles outside the town, and none of us were locals. Our parents worked at a nearby federal facility, part of President Johnson’s “Great Society.” We had more in common with neighbors of a different race than we had with local townspeople of our own hue.

Then April 5 dawned and, over pop tarts, we watched television reports that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot down on a Lorraine Motel balcony, and that St. Joseph’s Hospital doctors had pronounced him dead at age 39.

I’d been to Memphis a few times, but only in transit. The first time, my grandfather had to shoo me off the colored water fountain at the train station. He didn’t want any problems with local (white Democrat) authorities.

We were traveling during Spring Break on a train that ran from Chicago to Louisiana. We almost had the train to ourselves southbound. But on our way north, it was stuffed with Black women and children. It was part of “the great migration” from the Cotton South to northern cities, Chicago in this case. Many of them smelled bad, in need of a shower. Their grooming was minimal during a time when people dressed up to travel. Some brought their clothes in grocery sacks instead of suitcases.

I thought they were too poor to buy luggage, but I saw on a documentary years later that some of them had to sneak onto the northbound trains in the middle of the night, slipping past patrols employed by white landowners who wanted to stop the hemorrhage of cheap agricultural labor from the Delta country. Maybe those brown paper sacks were part of the subterfuge.

Even at age 10, I could tell that some of the Black mothers looked scared when they got on the northbound train. The grievances were not imaginary in the time of Martin Luther King. Oppression was real.

It was a dark and gloomy ride to town April 5 on the school bus. I didn’t know what to say to the Black kids. I’m not sure, even now, what I could have said. The other white kids didn’t say anything, either. The bus delivered us to the Junior High School curb in silence.

But during the school day, we reverted to tribe. I felt that my Black neighbors became hostile to us under the influence of the Black locals, who had a chip on their collective shoulder. There was some bad history in town. The schools had desegregated only a year before we moved there.

Kentucky was, after all, part of the South. Whoever won the Democratic nomination in the 1st Congressional District would coast to Washington DC unopposed in the general election. The county newspaper of record carried some very snide, dismissive commentary on the Civil Rights movement.

On the bus ride home from town that Friday afternoon, the Black kids stayed hostile to us, their neighbors and teammates. There were provocations, there were fights, the bus driver had his hands full.

We white kids were no saints, either. Nobody would have mistaken me for Fred Rogers. I said the kind of mean stuff that the white kids in town said, and that their fathers and grandfathers had said. It was the only time in my life that I used the N-word against another human being. And they were my friends.

After a parting skirmish at the bus stop, we separated into white and Black and went home to scheme the next showdown. We fumed and cursed, and vowed to put them in their place. They probably planned similar comeuppance for us.

But when Saturday rolled around, the grass was green and the ballgames beckoned. The sun would rise and set whether we went outside and played ball or not. The arithmetic was unyielding: we couldn’t get a game going without both races. I don’t remember who went to whose door to call us (or them) outside to play. But outdoor play reigned supreme, and it transcended racial animosity that day, and from then on.

We resumed our friendships as if nothing had happened, and we never mentioned that day again, so far as I know. I think the unspoken consensus was “wow, that sucked. Let’s not do that anymore.”