There was a 50 year anniversary a couple of weeks ago which marked one of those moments in time some of us will never forget. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed April 4, 1968.
It was a Friday morning, April 5, 1968, during my junior year at W.W. Samuell High School when I was overcome by a senseless act of violence. The day before, at the now infamous Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, civil rights icon Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down while standing on a balcony near his room.
The school year 1967-68 was my junior year in high school. I had had a spinal fusion the summer of 1967 and had spent most the school year getting used to walking again and trying to adjust to life without sports. One of my favorite teachers was my English teacher that year, Janet Gerard or Miss G. She had opened me up to so many things in American Literature and had encouraged me to write essays and even some poetry. She was one of the major influences in my life and one of the reasons I became a teacher. She instilled a desire in me to be a writer. Since I was not active in sports anymore, I had time to read, write and contemplate.
Miss G had given us an extension on our junior theme, a lengthy paper which was meant to prepare us for the senior research paper we would be doing in the next year. The paper was now due on the Monday after the King assassination. I had grown up watching this country live through the turmoil of the 1960s with the civil rights movement and the Viet Nam War, both of which served to deeply divide this country.
I knew several young men who had already been to Viet Nam and would come to know more in the next few years, many who came home in a pine box. My core beliefs were being shaken so severely I was trying to figure out life in general.
I had already turned my junior term paper in, but the King shooting really got to me. I got permission to write another paper and set out to do a 10-page theme over the weekend. I wrote the paper as best I could. She gave me an “A-” for the paper. She explained to me although she cried as she read what I had written, she had to give me the “A-“ with the minus being because what I had written was mostly opinion and not exactly a research paper. Miss G let me slide on that paper because she knew how distraught and disillusioned I was becoming.
Also in early 1968, I had also decided God had called me to be a minister. I had always accepted the teachings of my beliefs and that the United States government was not to be a questioned. It was that spring in 1968 when I began to ask questions, of myself, my God and my country.
I really believed in what Jesus lived and preached in the New Testament. I was beginning to wonder why there were no people of color in my church and why young men my age were being shipped off to a war to die when no one could really tell us why. I really got the point where I questioned why young men under age 21 could not vote, but could be sent to war to defend those rights and die for them.
I started working on the Robert Kennedy campaign for President, but on June 6, 1968, he too was gunned down in another act of violence. My venture into coming to know myself was really just beginning.
I became involved in civil rights causes and the anti-war movement. Through the years, I have mellowed and even found myself agreeing with conservatives and liberals alike. I’m not sure where I fall on the political spectrum these days, but as I think back to the 1960s and early 1970s, I think of today and wonder how far we have come, if at all.
Then, I do see hope. Whether I agree with them philosophically and politically or not, it does my old rebellious heart good to see the activism with young people who have sprung into action recently since the school shooting in Florida, women banding together demanding accountability in many areas, teachers marching and saying enough is enough, and more people getting active in the election process.
This is America. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we do need to listen to those who are opposed to our personal beliefs and philosophy. I made a vow to myself that I will listen to all sides of any given subject and will sort through other’s opinions before I open my big mouth. It’s amazing at how much we can grow within ourselves when we listen to other views, not just tolerate them, but really listen and seek to understand others.
Maybe it’s time we all tried listening before speaking, maybe what we learn can make a difference in our lives.