A month after my first birthday, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Many who lived in Memphis at the time will tell you their story of that day, the black or white perspective changing the story from deep sadness and grief to shock and fear, depending on who was telling it. My family’s story was different than either extreme, as they teetered back and forth between fear and sadness and hopelessness that things might not get better without Dr. King.
My father was working that day as a janitor for a glass and paint company in downtown Memphis, the only job he could get with the little education he had. As a young boy growing up in the rural outskirts of North Memphis, school was not a priority. It’s not that he wasn’t smart, but he had to work at a young age, helping his own father work their farm. From what I can piece together, calling it a farm is being generous. It consisted of a small house, a barn that was literally tied together with frayed ropes, a shed that was full of tools and old oil cans, a few skinny, scuffed up horses, and a second shed where my grandpa and his brothers would make molasses. They were determined to make the best blackstrap molasses in the county, full of all the vitamins and minerals needed to live a long life. The only thing my granny wanted was sorghum molasses so she could use it to bake and sweeten up her corn cakes. Unfortunately, neither became a money maker for my ancestral family. Years later, I heard Daddy telling our neighbor all about the failed molasses business of his childhood and about the twin aunts he had, Aunt Eula and Aunt Zula, who used the molasses to make rum, most of which they used to drink themselves to death.
The little bit of schooling Daddy got was in his young years. Being one of thirteen children, he had to share his shoes with his younger brother, Cecil. Daddy used them on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays while Uncle Cecil would use them on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “Uncle Cecil didn’t need as much school since he’s special,” my mom would later tell us. On the days daddy got to school, shoes on, he would go through the paces offered by a small public school in the south–math, reading and handwriting–which he missed much of due to the job he had cleaning up in the school’s cafeteria. At the age of eight, he was mopping floors and washing dirty lunch trays while other kids were learning about the world, how to compute numbers and to read. He always told us it was worth it because he was able to eat all he wanted in the lunchroom, since his work paid for his lunches and his brother’s on the days he had school.
Twenty years later, and he was still sweeping smooth, concrete floors, only this time in a giant warehouse lined with gargantuan pieces of glass separated by dividers of wood and plastic. He worked here with three other men of his age, around thirty years old, but not of his color. They were all black, or as daddy would describe, colored. A word of the ages, I guess.
On April 4, 1968, daddy was sweeping aisle 17, home of windshields of varying sizes and thicknesses, when he suddenly heard his name being yelled from the main office. The urgency in the voice of his buddy, James, made daddy cut his whistling mid-tune and drop the push broom handle to the floor. He started running toward the office in a slow jog and then faster as he saw James leaning in the doorway, his head down in one hand, moving back and forth repeating, “No, no, no.”
“They shot ’em, Ray. They shot ’em.”
At home, my mom had already heard the news from Aunt Jane, who called her after hearing the news from her husband’s secretary. Uncle Paul was an administrator of the hospital where Martin Luther King, Jr. was being taken, so mom knew it was real and happening and terrible. Mom’s first thought was Daddy, who was downtown where this tragedy was unfolding. The news of the shooter, his skin color and the announcement of Dr. King’s death began to circulate.
Paul Hess, assistant administrator at St. Joseph’s Hospital, where Dr. King died despite emergency surgery, said the minister had “received a gunshot wound on the right side of the neck, at the root of the neck, a gaping wound.”
“He was pronounced dead at 7:05 P.M. Central standard time (8:05 P.M. New York time) by staff doctors,” Mr. Hess said. “They did everything humanly possible.”
Anger and grief spread through the streets of Memphis. People were scared. My parents were scared. Dad’s warehouse buddies were, too. In order to get my dad home safely to his wife and three young daughters, his warehouse buddies, as he often called them, had to put him in the back floorboards of their car and drive him home. They knew this was the only way to keep their white friend in one piece on the streets of Memphis that night.
As they drove, following every traffic signal along the way so that no attention came to them, my dad’s body compressed down just beyond the front seat row against the floor mats, heavy weights of grief seemed to be holding the car down so that the wheels were rotating through sludge. Our little house seemed miles and miles away. For the most part, the passengers were silent except for an occasional “I can’t believe it.” or “Killed ’em.” Daddy was silent, maybe out of respect or maybe fear. He never said.
When they finally pulled into our neighborhood, all white by design and ignorance of the times, mama was on the front porch with me on her hip and a cigarette in her hand. The car climbing up the slope of driveway carefully brought her a sense of relief and eased her panicked breath. Dad rose up in the back of the car like an old Jack-in-the-Box and was helped out of the car by his warehouse buddies.
They all sat around the kitchen table that night for hours, talking about the day’s events, eventually joined by Aunt Jane and Uncle Paul. As the only bottle of whiskey in the house (or alcohol for that matter) was poured into juice glasses around the table, everyone shared their account of the day and their fears for the future as my sisters and me laid asleep in our beds.