MEMPHIS, Tenn. — We were a family of seven and in exceptionally high spirits on the evening of April 4, 1968. We had all piled into our new April Gold-colored station wagon and were heading out for a leisurely drive.
My dad had driven about six blocks from our home in the Brookland section of Washington when the news came over the car radio: Martin Luther King Jr. was dead.
My mother screamed and started stomping her foot on the floorboard of the car. I’d never seen her cry, and there she was, wailing as if it were the end of the world. My father silently turned the car around and headed home, our night of fun and frivolity cut short.
I was too young to know much about King before he was assassinated. The night he died, though, is forever seared in my memory. It was 50 years ago Wednesday.
That night, Washington erupted in flames as thousands of outraged black residents poured their frustrations into the streets. D.C. police were vastly outnumbered, so President Lyndon B. Johnson called in the National Guard.
Although the rioting never came near our neighborhood, our parents warned us what to do in advance if violence erupted while we were in the car. We were to drop to the floor and stay there until my dad gave the command to get up. I was so terrified at the sight of gun-toting soldiers in our quiet, middle-class neighborhood near Catholic University that I would hide on the floor of the car, too terrified to even look out the window.
Life eventually went back to normal for us.
The civil rights movement, which had lost its charismatic young leader, not so much.
I think about those days now on this, the 50th anniversary of King’s murder. I’m not big on visiting cemeteries and celebrating death anniversaries, but this year, I felt an urge to do something significant. I didn’t want to spend it sitting in a cubicle just like it was any other day.
So, my husband and I drove to Memphis, where King spent his last night on Earth. He was there helping striking sanitation workers who earned less than a $1 an hour and worked in deplorable conditions. The night before, he had given his historic “Mountaintop” speech, in which he prophesied his own death.
There are several days of activities planned in and around the site of the former Lorraine Motel, where King was staying the night he was killed. The motel is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum.
At 6:01 p.m. Wednesday, the approximate time of his shooting, a bell will sound 39 times – once for every year of King’s all-too-short life. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was with King that day, is scheduled to be among those in attendance. It will be sad, and I’m not exactly looking forward to it. But I would rather be there among those similarly called on Wednesday evening than anywhere else.
While we were driving through Ohio, I reached out to the Rev. Joel King, one of the slain civil rights leader’s first cousins. He told me, “They killed the dreamer, but the dream never died.”
It lives on.
I’m heartened by all the echoes of it that I see in this new generation – the Black Lives Matter protesters and those high school students from Parkland, Fla., who are fighting today’s causes – police brutality, school shootings, and gun violence.
“I think the children are going to make the difference,” Joel King told me.
Dr. King, I think, would be happy that once again, the young people are on the front lines of history.