Throwback Thursday: The Assassination of MLK

Newsflash

On April 4, 1968, the lights went out and the dark ripped my world apart. I was alone when I got the word. I’d been sitting outside, basking in the sun and shade at a picnic table in a Denver park listening to The Doors on my small transistor radio, rifling down a sandwich: two slabs of processed turkey stuffed between two pieces of Wonder Bread. Hold the mayonnaise, pickle, lettuce, tomato. A newscaster burst in with a newsflash, his voice interrupting the song “Light My Fire,” and the intermittent spams of static that accompanied the music. That’s where I was. Stuck in a mile-high stupor of Schlitz Malt Liquor and Panama Red, the munchies fueling my ever-rising hunger, pissed The Doors had been highjacked for the breaking news I didn’t want to hear. Then the announcer said after a pause that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed—murdered in a motel in Memphis.

The Yin Yang

The flowering sixties of Peace and Love had descended into one murderous row after another, taking all we had created and throwing it out the window with the baby and the bathwater. Bombing and the burning of cities, assassinations, President Johnson intensifying the Vietnam War. The dark side of the Yin Yang was encroaching on the light like a WW2 Panzer Division overrunning enemy territory. On the verge of victory. Of course, we all know without dark there can be no light, but on this day the light had been struck down so suddenly and completely; it was as if Lucifer had blown the candle out for the final time.

The Myth of Sisyphus

It seemed to me like only yesterday when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and now King gunned down. It wasn’t how far we’d come as a civilization, but how low we’d sunk. Like the myth of Sisyphus, we keep rolling the boulder up the hill toward the light, only to have it come crashing back down the hill into the dark. Why do we do this to ourselves? The death wish must be strong in our species, as strong as the will to live. There it is: the Yin Yang again. When will we ever learn?

History Repeating Itself

I got up from the picnic table, threw my garbage away and sauntered off to my truck parked under the trees across from the spreading green fed by sprinklers sprouting water I had to dodge around. I felt dead, depleted, my legs hardly able to hold me up. I got home and sat hunched, leaning forward into the flickering glow of the TV, watching the horror of the moment. It felt as though I was running my mind over a jagged field of broken glass. I remembered JFKand the upheaval that came afterwards. I couldn’t believe this was happening all over again. In the Age of Love. I never thought in my wildest dream anything like this could happen. Again. But it did. A twisted version of history repeating itself.

Waiting for the Man

MLK had meant much to me, a voice of light and hope speaking up out of the darkness of our time to console us, bringing us together, helping us. He was an eminently gifted orator, brilliant, with a magnetic presence he sometimes held in reserve. I had been fortunate to have seen him talk in 1967 on May 18while I was in Denver visiting the University of Denver campus. Probably two thousand of us in the five thousand-seat Denver Fieldhouse. It cost me all of one dollar—one dollar well spent when I think back. How lucky I was to have seen and heard him.

I was lightly stoned. Didn’t know a soul, but knew where to find a one ounce baggie of pot before the event. That cost me maybe ten bucks. Didn’t know what strain it was. Most of the time in those days you never knew—it was all generic. Like smoking dried weeds growing up from manure in the back forty. Except sometimes, you’d come upon some Panama Red or Acapulco Gold. Then, you’d pay maybe twenty or twenty-five bucks a lid to blow the top of your head off.

As it was, I had to catch a plane the next day back home so I could finish out high school. But I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to be here—in Colorado. It seemed far more forward-thinking than where I lived in the east. I know the experience of listening to MLK had something to do with this feeling I was experiencing. The next morning, I went to the admission office and accepted the university’s offer to matriculate for the fall of 1967.

We’re All Human

I was standing with my back to the wall in the back of the arena, people of all colors scattered in front of me like contrasting hues of autumn leaves murmuring in the wind. But it was definitely more of a black crowd, and the arena was only half full. I was comfortable in such a setting. I had often spent time in black blues bars and clubs. Sometimes they’d stare at me when I entered, because I was the only white guy there, but as they got to know and trust me after frequent visits, they accepted me. That’s the point. If you take the time to get to know someone and then trust them, black or white, you have a chance of dropping the veil that separates you. Except for some cultural differences, black is white and white is black, as are other colors. We’re all human.

We’re All One

Earlier, when I walked into the arena, I passed a group of men outside the front doors holding up a white sheet with the words: Rights for Whitesand, later that night, a cross was burned on the green on Fraternity Row. Why does the color of one’s skin inspire so much hate? This stuff was running rampant back in 1967 and it’s still running today. I know it’s not so simple, but back to the Yin Yang again. We’re all made from the same coin, different sides, but still from the same human stock. There is light and dark and, parts of light inside the dark and, parts of dark inside the light. We are the sum of our parts. We are all one.

A Grand Yet Humble Entrance

When King made his entrance into the arena, a rousing cheer went up along with a faint hooting and boos. He walked down the center aisle, a security team, plus a number of close associates surrounding him. He had one arm raised and was waving. Still, underneath that smile was a taciturn-looking man of worried intelligence. You couldn’t mistake the seriousness emanating from him. As he made his way toward the stage he kept disappearing, bobbing in and out of the light and dark, inside and outside his team. I could hardly make him out. He was like an insect fluttering back and forth. I remember thinking of Mohammed Ali. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.MLK took the stage and then someone, I don’t recall who, introduced him. He stepped forward and stood in front of the lectern.

His words, His Power

I remember the tone of his speech, the warmth, love, the anger tucked underneath his voice, the seeking and the growing, the probing. Among other things, he told us not to go to Vietnam, resist the draft. He talked about integration. True integration is shared power, he said. That is true, but as bad as it was back then, it continues today. In fact, it might be going backwards with the regime we have in power today. I’d been trying to live by his words for a long time, since the first time I heard him on the radio several years before. What his speech did for me that night was confirm my way of being. I wasn’t a Christian then, nor am I now, but morally, he was right on track. And so was I. You don’t need religion to be a moral person. Religion didn’t invent morality, but it does give it a structure for those who need it. MLK accentuated all that he had said before. He lived and dreamed of a better way. I have a dream.

The Light and the Dark

When he finished his talk and left the stage, I filed out of the arena with the others into the night, the light streaming down from the street lamps mingling with the darkness, all of which enveloped us, together, light and dark, their cold and, at the same time, warming arms, enfolding all of us together as one. 

Up Next: RFK

Related Video

Related Articles

Close