As my former American History students will tell you, I am a great admirer of the modern civil rights movement in the United States, and, especially, of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the greatest Americans of the twentieth century. I first learned about the Civil Rights Movement, and King’s role in it, as a youngster; these “lessons” were taught to me by the “school” of television.
The epochal Brown decision was handed down by the Supreme Court in May, 1954, three days before my tenth birthday; the legislative highlights of the “heroic phase” of the Civil Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, were passed by Congress while I was in college. Until I entered college in the fall of 1962, my biggest window on the world was our black and white TV set, and its fuzzy images I saw each night on the newscasts we watched with dinner.
I was a very young “news junkie” in 1954–for instance, I still remember watching some of the Army-McCarthy hearings in the afternoon, postponing my homework so I could catch what I would later learn to call “great political theater.” And, when those hearings eventually ran their course and I had to find a new excuse to put off my assignments, the drama–and, thanks to television, the pictures–accompanying the Civil Rights Movement seemed never-ending.
I also must confess that I was quite naive about what I was watching. To me, it all seemed very clear-cut, a matter of black-and-white, just like the TV I watched and the daily newspaper I read–but with the traditional symbolism of black-and-white reversed: it was the (Southern) white folks who were the villains (in my mind, anyway) and black people who were the heroes. I also was certain that, as a resident of Maryland (and, later, of Delaware), I did not live where there were any race problems, no sirree! Although my view of the world has changed over the past five decades, with the clarity of black-and-white evolving into shades of gray, one aspect has not been altered by time–my conviction of the centrality of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the successes–and the failures–of the modern civil rights movement.
I still recall vividly a Saturday afternoon, probably during the Little Rock crisis, standing outside my church, waiting for a ride, when suddenly my fascination with the on-going epic of the Movement collided with a burgeoning interest in the American Civil War, and I began to ponder, as only a white 13 year-old could, whether we were on the verge of a new Civil War, this one over the demands of an oppressed minority for the same basic civil rights and economic and social opportunities the rest of us took for granted.
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On the afternoon of April 4, 1968, my wife and I emerged from a movie theater on a military post in Maryland to learn that Martin Luther King, Jr., had been fatally shot in Memphis, Tennessee. At the time, I was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army finishing an undistinguished two-year tour of active duty.
We had gone to the matinee because that night I was scheduled to be the post’s Staff Duty Officer, which meant that a sergeant and I were to stay in the headquarters building overnight in case important messages arrived for the post commander. When Faith and I took our seats in the theater a couple of hours earlier, I had been looking forward to the assignment; by the time we drove home, I was no longer anticipating the night ahead.
At the headquarters building, I was told that, if things got out of hand in nearby Baltimore, as appeared likely, our headquarters company would be sent to the metropolis to assist in “riot control.” The sergeant and I were then left alone in a small room equipped with a portable black-and-white television set and an increasingly ominous telephone. My mood was not improved when I called home, and my wife told me that her boss, our landlord (we lived above his shop), planned to stay up all night, garden hose at the ready, in case “they” came marching down the main street of our little town and stopped to burn his business on the way.
With little to do unless the phone rang, I turned my attention to television news coverage of the roiling civil unrest in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination. Two incidents from that coverage remain with me: an African-American celebrity (exactly which one is beyond my recollection), against the backdrop of the smoke-filled Washington, D.C., skyline, pleading with viewers not to dishonor Dr. King’s memory by engaging in violence or looting; and the increasingly frantic voice of a frightened reporter phoning in details to his employers while an angry crowd rocked, and eventually overturned, the telephone booth in which he had taken refuge.
Evidently, the combined efforts of local law enforcement and the National Guard kept a lid on things in Baltimore, because the sergeant and I never got that telephone call. I drove off the post the next morning relieved that the alert had not come but also feeling that somehow, with the death of Dr. King, the Civil Rights Movement and the nation had been irrevocably changed, though in ways none of us could yet fathom.
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Today, Dr. King has a national holiday and a memorial statue on the Mall in Washington. He and his legacy are now “monumental” in every sense of the word. Meanwhile, his children try to “protect” his image and his words, but they sometimes seem to be doing so in a mercenary way.
And, as if that isn’t enough, Americans still opposed to government support for Civil Rights use Dr. King’s “content of their character” mantra to criticize efforts to advance the cause, claiming that those efforts are somehow “racist.” I watch their antics with a mixture of bemusement, cynicism, and an occasional flash of anger. In quieter moments, though, I think of that thirteen year-old waiting outside his church, pondering the possibility of a new Civil War over the issue of Civil Rights. There was never any question, then, whose side he was on. . . . And there still isn’t.
[NOTE: This essay is adapted from an earlier post on Dr. King’s significance in the American story:
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: