I am old enough to remember 1968 very well, but through a child’s eyes. Not that I understood everything, of course. When my mother came out crying and told me as I played in my sandbox in Terre Haute, Indiana, “They shot Kennedy,” my reaction was: I thought they already shot him. The memory of JFK’s assassination was still very fresh, and every kid imagined himself in the position of John John, standing at attention as the funeral cortege passes by.
I don’t remember the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. as vividly; but I do remember the tension in our town after the event. I was becoming aware that the world was full of angry people who shot good men dead. I was certainly aware of the idea of race before — as was often the case in those times, there was a “black Richard” who I saw as my metaphysical counterpart in school, though I doubt he thought of me as “white Richard.” But something turned mean and ugly in 1968. There were racial tensions at the middle school my brother was to attend. We were thinking of moving to Michigan and heard about riots in Detroit. We lived in a world of murdered heroes and angry mobs.
The idea of the Civil Rights movement was not a problem in my household. My parents were (and remain) committed Christian liberals; their faith did not exclude people of any kind.They had grown up in proximity to African Americans all their lives — my father had even had the proverbial “mammy” as a boy in Chicago. But they went beyond conventional tolerance. As a girl, my mother unilaterally boycotted the school bus in the 1940s, because it wouldn’t pick up black children in her rural Kentucky Community. My parents and my two siblings had heeded the “Hearts and Minds” call of the State Department, and lived in the newly independent Nigeria. I grew up in a household where Africans were such frequently guests that I thought “Hausa” meant the language of the house. My mother’s favorite gospel singer was Mahalia Jackson.
So there was no struggle in our house over equal rights, the message of King, or civil rights generally. He spoke a language of faith that seemed quite reasonable to my parents, and I grew up thinking there was nothing unusual in this at all. It was a kind of Christian common sense. I didn’t really learn about racism in all its ugliness until the 1970s and 80s — and not from cracker sheriffs, but from Chicago cops.
Last summer we took our kids to Memphis. As we passed by the Civil Rights Museum, I caught a glimpse of the Lorraine Motel. I immediately recognized it, but I didn’t know why. Gradually I realized: that is the site of one of the most notorious murders of the twentieth century. For the first time, I really felt his death as a wound.
Richard Armstrong, Ph.D., is an associate professor of classical studies in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, and a Fellow in The Honors College. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org