This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. He was shot early in the evening of April 4th, 1968. In honor of the memory, I attended a Learning Center lecture held at First Presbyterian Church. The speaker was Dr. Robert Pratt. An African-American, he’s been a professor of history at the University of Georgia for the past thirty years and is about my age. He grew up in Virginia, raised by his grandparents in rural Essex County.
Dr. Pratt was ten years old when Dr. King died. He told the story about how, after dinner, his grandmother would go into her bedroom and watch TV while his grandfather retreated to the living room. Dr. Pratt normally sat on the edge of his grandmother’s bed and watched TV with her. On this night, the program they were watching was interrupted with the news that Dr. King had been shot. His grandmother cried. He went into the living room and asked if his grandfather had heard. He had and he was angry. The next day, he went to his segregated school. Instead of regular classes, everything was about Dr. King and what he’d been doing for his people. On their way home, his bus passed the white school and he wondered what those kids had spent their day doing.
This hit home. For the first three years of my schooling, we were in Virginia and I attended an all-white school. We lived in Petersburg. To this day I am amazed that when we left in the summer of 1966, to move to the North Carolina coast, I had no idea the city was 80% African American. It was that segregated. Not that North Carolina was all that much better, but there were a few African American students in the elementary school I attended there.
I don’t remember hearing about Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination on the night of April 4, 1968, but I must have. It just didn’t seem to have any effect on my life. I do remember the next morning, as we rode Bus #6 along Masonboro and Greenville Sound Loop Roads to Bradley Creek Elementary School. Some of my classmates joked about his death. It seemed insensitive, but my mind was on a Boy Scout camping trip. As soon as I got home from school that day, my mother drove me up to the church to meet up with other scouts in Troop 206. We were going to Holly Shelter Swamp for the weekend. My clothes and sleeping bag were packed up in a duffel bag which was thrown in the back of the scout trailer. We left town, and as the evening light waned, set up camp on bluff overlooking the Northeast Cape Fear River.
Our scoutmaster was a detective in the Sheriff’s Department. When we woke up the next morning, we learned he had been called back to duty that night. Somehow, in the days before cell phones, word had gotten to him that Wilmington was aflame. Another father took his place and we ran around in the woods and enjoyed our weekend, not really worrying about what was happening at home.
We came back into town on Sunday afternoon and the streets were empty. There was a county-wide curfew, even though the rioting was mostly in the inner-city areas. We were taken to our homes, where we stayed for the next week as schools shut down. That afternoon, there was a cookout at our house with neighbors. The man next door was espousing his racial views on what they should do to calm the city. He talked about an event unfamiliar to me and how, in 1898, the whites in the city rose up and put the blacks in their place and that the river ran red from blood. No one else spoke. My father quickly changed topics.
I would later learn more about the Wilmington Massacre. Around the 100th anniversary, in 1998, there were a number of books published about it. The atrocity reminds us of how inhumane we can be to one another. Thinking back on this as an adult, I realized how this event, which had been whitewashed from the city’s history, was still fresh in the minds of the African-American community. It had only been seventy years. As big of a deal as white Southerners were still making about the Civil War, this was much more recent. There must have been old men and women still alive in the black community who had experienced the terror of this event in their childhood. While I can’t condone the violence that broke out after Dr. King’s death, I can understand the rage.
In the questions following Dr. Pratt’s lecture, he was asked if racial issues of our nation will ever go away. His answer was that there would be no complete reconciliation until we all see by the same lens. Humbly following in faith the teachings of Jesus of how we love one another, and of Paul about how we are all the same in Jesus Christ, is a good starting part.
For books about the 1898 atrocity, click here.