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VOL. 123 | NO. 67 | Friday, April 4, 2008

40 Years Later: Remembering a Tragedy in Memphis

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"I would hope that (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) is never relegated to a dream because when one is dreaming, one is asleep. He had a vision for our nation and our world of freedom and justice and equality."

- Martin Luther King III

Editor's Note: Senior reporter Bill Dries remembers where he was 40 years ago today, the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.

The first time I saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he was an image on a television screen. My brothers, my sister and I had been playing in our backyard one April afternoon when I heard the phone ring through the kitchen window screen. It was a brief phone call and when it was over we all hurried inside and turned on the television.

I heard the words before the picture filled the screen. Our black and white set took a bit to warm up. A picture of King seated in a chair and peering back at me faded into view on the screen as the shocking and grim words continued, punctuated periodically by the word "Memphis."

Uncertain time

This year in particular I think about how parents prevailed in the face of such violence and uncertainty all those years ago.

While we were tracking down the location of relatives in other parts of the city 40 years ago today, there was a knock at our front door. It was the kid from a few blocks over who had the paper route in our area.

At first, I thought he had come to collect. Instead, he had a box of bullets and was offering the extras if we needed them. My mother was a few steps behind me. There was just enough of a gap for him to make the offer and me to stand there in 9-year-old amazement taking in the shiny metal cylinders before she quickly closed the front door without saying a word.

Harold Collins was 5 years old and lived in the Pine Hills section of South Memphis.

"We were outside playing and my mom runs into the backyard and grabs all of us up and pulls us in the house. I don't know if that was because martial law had been declared or her fear ... as an African-American woman that there were prices on people's heads. I don't know," said Collins, who now serves on the Memphis City Council that was such an integral part of the tragic drama that played out then. "After that, I don't remember. My folks kept us shielded - away from that kind of stuff. They made it very clear to us that we were not to be racially polarized."

Collins spoke on his way to the same council chambers where key decisions were made that helped set the events of 1968 on their historic course. The large meeting hall still looks much the same except for some different carpet, computer screens and other technological upgrades.

Chilling remembrances

Martin Luther King III admitted to some "mixed emotions" last week on his first visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, built on the site of his father's assassination at the Lorraine Motel.

His mother, Coretta Scott King, who died two years ago, had more than mixed emotions. She attended the museum's first Freedom Awards banquet in the early 1990s and was only reluctantly coaxed into driving by the museum shortly after its opening. King's youngest daughter, Bernice King, asked to be allowed onto the balcony where her father fell during her first visit years later. She lingered on the spot for several minutes.

Now older than his father lived to be, Martin Luther King III talks more these days about grown-up things such as legacies.

"I would hope that he is never relegated to a dream because when one is dreaming, one is asleep. He had a vision for our nation and our world of freedom and justice and equality," he said of his father. "What my mom and my dad taught us was to love ourselves, to love our family, to love our community, but most of all to have a love of God."

A real nightmare

My older brother had, in one of his latest forays, come across a short-wave radio of some kind. It was enormous with lots of vacuum tubes and big dials.

And somehow that evening he found a way to adjust it so it would pick up calls on the police frequencies. We all listened in disbelief as we heard the names of familiar intersections in other parts of the city and unfamiliar words like sniper and looter, phrases such as a police car overturned and set on fire.

Days later, I watched on TV Downtown streets I was familiar with and store names I knew. I looked for landmarks I knew as I
saw footage of tanks in the streets of my city.

The signs were a way of confirming that the nightmare was real. This was my city.

All of these years later, I have come to know people who played prominent roles in the strike that brought King to Memphis. I suppose you could say some of them were on different sides, although I've never looked at it quite that way.

To me, they all have been changed by that day 40 years ago just as surely as I was and millions of others who never knew or met Martin Luther King Jr.

Different times

Collins said he believes the council should have done more to mark the anniversary. He also talked of what a different City Council might have done 40 years ago.

"I believe if that council had rebuked Mayor (Henry) Loeb ... you never know what might have happened," Collins said, referring to the mayor's refusal to grant the sanitation workers' union a dues check-off provision and the council's backing of Loeb.

In a small meeting room just behind his pulpit at Monumental Baptist Church several months ago, Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles had a different take.

"I don't think there'll ever be another one individual leader for black America. We're too diverse now," he said. "One bullet won't traumatize us for 10 years. That one bullet took away so much. And that won't happen again. You'll have to shoot a lot of bullets to get rid of us now."

Minutes earlier, before several hundred people in his South Memphis church filed in, he had taken on what he said is his responsibility to be a witness to what he saw happen, not what might have happened.

"I told (King) dinner was at 5 o'clock," Kyles said, recalling King's last moments 40 years ago. "I went over to the motel to pick him up. He said, 'Oh no, dinner's not till 6 and I'm in no hurry. Have a seat.'

"He was never in a hurry. That's why I told him 5 o'clock. So I took a seat. That gave me the wonderful privilege of spending the last hour of his life on Earth."

It's a story that has a fateful ending, one that has been remembered all week. Many still struggle with what it says about who we were then and who we are today.

"Martin never spoke a word," Kyles recalled about that moment. "Blood was everywhere. The ambulance finally came. I told them what hospital to take him to and they did. I had no words then. I have none now. We waited. We waited. We waited. Finally word came that we lost him. Forty years later I still have no words to describe."

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