Thursday, April 4 almost passed without my noticing it was the forty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Junior. While the date didn’t have the same impact on me as November 22, 1963 when President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, the death of Dr. King did awaken an awareness among my classmates and I about what was going on in our nation.
On April 4, 1968, I was a fifth grader in Mrs. James class at Port Leyden Elementary School in upstate New York. The shooting happened on a Thursday night. It was Holy Thursday night. The next day, Good Friday, classes were held for just the morning hours with dismissal for religious services at midday.
Mrs. James probably did not have much of a lesson plan for us on that half-day, but it made no difference. I recall most of that morning was spent watching news coverage from Washington, Memphis, and other cities throughout the northeast as outbreaks of violence were being reported. My classmates and I watched the coverage.
Few if any of us had heard of Martin Luther King prior to the shooting. All of that changed after April 11.
The topic of race was now being discussed in our classroom. Violence was now introduced to this group of naïve fifth graders. Most of us had faded memories of the assassination five years prior of President Kennedy, when were just first graders. Now, at eleven years of age, a lot of us grew up that day following the horrific event in Memphis.
I believe everyone in that classroom took in a lot over those few days in April of 1968. We watched the funeral services, the march along the streets of Atlanta, and still more scenes of violence all over the country. I won't speak for the others watching those images on television forty-five years ago, but I know the images made an impact on me.
Fourteen years later, Dr. King’s life would again touch me in the chance drive through the neighborhood where he was gunned down in Memphis. I was on assignment as a television reporter dispatched to do a report on the then fifth anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley.
My photographer and I spent the day at the entrance to the Presley home: Graceland Mansion. We interviewed fans, shot lots of video, and tried to answer the question “Why are fans still mourning the loss of the rock and roll singer?”
When we finished gathering video, the photographer suggested we drive by the neighborhood where Martin Luther King was shot. The photographer knew the city pretty well, and I was interested in this kind of history. I wish I was journaling back then, because all I have are faded recollections of seeing the former Lorraine Hotel and thinking how tight all the buildings were in that part of town.
Fast forward another twenty years, and I find myself at the newly opened Martin Luther King monument in Washington, DC. This time, I was journaling. I wrote about how it felt to see this hero of the civil rights movement be memorialized with a large monument in the nation’s capitol. I wrote about the relative closeness of the King monument to the Lincoln Memorial; the very spot where he gave the famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
I was again taken back to that fifth grade classroom at Port Leyden Elementary. I was thinking seriously for the first time about race, violence, and change.
A lot would happen in our nation in the weeks and months following the King assassination in 1968. Robert Kennedy would be gunned down within two months. The Democratic National Convention would rock the city of Chicago later that summer with more violence and charges of police brutality on the streets of the Windy City. The Vietnam War would continue to rage seemingly out of control as more American soldiers paid the ultimate price.
It was a unique year for me. So much happened, and it was only the beginning. From that year forward, I became more aware of my world. I could almost feel my boyhood innocence giving way to the reality that I was living in a new day and age.
It was a year that still holds many memories, forty-five years later.
Steve Newvine lives in Merced