I was 8 years old and my eyes were affixed to our black-and-white Zenith TV. On the screen there were pictures of Negro girls who looked very much like me. A voice in the distance told the horrible story of how they had been bombed in a church. In church? Why would anything bad ever happen in church? What is a bomb? I had never heard of that word. And where in the world is Birmingham?
For sure, Mommy knew the answers to my questions. She was sobbing uncontrollably, like all the Negro people on TV. Children hate to see their mothers cry. I was no different. It seemed to go against nature. I wished it would all go away, but I couldn’t close my eyes and make it happen. This was the first of terrible times. There would be many others to come.
Over the next few weeks, I learned words I wanted to forget describing places that I never wanted to go — Alabama, Mississippi, Jim Crow. Words my parents had managed to spare me until then. But no more. I had been robbed of my innocence. Bad things were happening. Earlier that year, Dr. Martin Luther King, a famous Negro preacher and hero to everyone I knew, had been in jail. I had never known anyone in jail, least of all a minister. Until Dr. King, I thought doctors only treated your cold and told your mother to give you red medicine. It was all very confusing. My world had turned upside-down. What if these people came to my church to kill me? What if they put a bomb in our house? I was so scared.
But Dr. King was not afraid of Birmingham. That’s what I told myself then. However, now, more than 59 years later, I see the fallacy of that assumption. Of course he must have been afraid. Wouldn’t you be if people wanted to kill you? I’m afraid of everything — dead bodies, driving in snow, not fitting in. But unlike Dr. King, I have never tried to push beyond the fear. I suppose I’ve been a coward all my life. Now I understand that courage is acting in spite of your fear. Dr. King had been stabbed, marched on Washington and went on to win a Nobel Prize.
Only two months after the girls were killed, I came home from school and Mommy was crying again. My sister explained that the president had been shot. He was dead, and now there was another scary word — assassination. I felt so sorry for Mrs. Kennedy, Caroline and John-John. When he saluted his father, I thought about my own. What would I do if they assassinated Daddy? I learned the names of other fathers who’d been killed or later would be — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X. Even a boy named Emmett Till, who was lynched just before I was born.
In late 1967, a strange place called Vietnam claimed the life of my brother-in-law-to-be. Five months later, on April 4, 1968, I took a break from playing outside with my friends. No one was in the living room, but the television set was on. And horror of horrors, more terrible news.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been shot at a Memphis hotel.
Oh no! Not again. At 12 years old, my underdeveloped brain could not process any more tragedy. So in absolute denial, I went back outside without ever saying a word. But not an hour had passed before the streets were filled with the agonizing sounds of grief. Disbelief. Even my friends understood the significance. I felt stupid and ashamed, as I pretended not to know anything. This is the first time I’ve ever admitted it.
I had never seen a Black man’s funeral on TV. By 1968, that’s what we were called. Somebody had decided we weren’t Negroes anymore. I felt sorry for Mrs. King and her children. She was beautiful and elegant like Mommy. Daddy kept a stiff upper lip. But as a Black Baptist minister himself, he had to be broken into a thousand little pieces. Nevertheless, we overcame, wishing for a day we wouldn’t have to.
A month later, we got the news that Jack was never coming home. My cousin had been killed in Vietnam on Mother’s Day.
The bad stuff increased exponentially. Terrible times to the tenth power. Sen. Robert Kennedy, brother of late President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, has been assassinated. The media called it a curse and everybody else went along. We have so many excuses for hate. Mothers were crying again — while attending to their labors — as Black fathers showered and shaved and prayed for a more perfect day.
I tried to evolve from a scaredy-cat to a thinker, writing poetry with deep and dark themes. The ear plug to my transistor radio was practically a permanent fixture, as I listened to the lyrics of Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. They were my favorites. Their masterful use of language was Shakespearean. Curtis and Marvin were ahead of their time. Smokey was and remains prolific. To date, he has written over four thousand songs. But for the most part, America has refused to acknowledge Black mastery with the credit it deserves.
In 1986, good and godly people defeated the opposition and made Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday. Although half the states refused to accept it, Black churches, schools and a host of organizations have commemorated his birth since the tragedy of his death. Now — finally — America has to reckon with his greatness.
Proud students recite “I Have A Dream” with the oratorical skills of the man, himself. People from all walks of life link arms in simulation of the 1963 March on Washington. But my personal favorite is a passionate, prophetic sermon he gave on April 3, 1968, in which he called upon the spirit of Moses:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The next morning, he was shot. An hour later, he was dead.
Thank you, Dr. King, for bringing disparate people together for common cause. Sleep well, for you, more than most, have earned your rest. And as long as you’re asleep anyway, keep on dreaming for a better and brighter day.
Candace Arthuria Williams (email@example.com) is a writer and editor based in New Jersey.