Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.

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(Photograph of White House meeting with on June 22 1963 with LBJ, Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Wikipedia)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Day is bittersweet for me as I remember the night he was killed, sitting in the porch on the floor in front of my parents in our white cape in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

We ate dinner and watched our scratchy black and white Zenith TV. My parents preferred the Huntley-Brinkley Report. Its theme music, the limbic equine pulse of the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, is a sound of my early childhood in Cambridge.

In the mornings, we woke to the theme music of William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major. With a twist of memory, Bach and Buckley blended as flickering frames of recollection, which alight at the sound of the concerto. They are the sound of a thought perhaps, merging the distinctive drawn drawl of Buckley’s voice into a recollection of a time before remembrance.

On that mild April evening in 1968 we watched Walter Cronkite. The TV reception was spotty and some days one channel would come in while others wouldn’t.  Cronkite was the anchor who my grandparents watched. They had a huge color television set encased in wood.

Cronkite was a generation removed. Huntley-Brinkley were my parents’ news anchors, and most nights were the same; I’d turn on WBGH Channel 2  to Julia Child wishing everyone, “au revoir and good night!” then Mr. Rogers in his cardigan sweater singing “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Would you be mine? Could you be mine?”

Later my parents turned the black and white TV to the news.

“Direct from our newsroom in Washington, in color, this is the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, and Ross Hodge in Memphis, TN, Dan Rather in New York, Bernard Kalb in Saigon, Marvin Kalb in Wellington, New Zealand, and Bert Quint in Kaison, South Vietnam.”

“Good evening,” Walter Cronkite intoned in his distinctive mellifluous voice, “Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of non-violence in the Civil Rights Movement, has been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee. Police have issued an all-points bulletin for a well-dressed young white man seen running from the scene. Officers also reportedly chased and fired on a radio-equipped car containing two white men. Dr. King was standing on the balcony of his second floor hotel room tonight, when, according to a companion, a shot was fired from across the street. In the friend’s words, the bullet exploded in his face.”

My mother bolted from the porch. I watched in confusion as Walter Cronkite continued:

“Police, who have been keeping a close watch over the Nobel Peace Prize winner, because of Memphis’ turbulent racial situation, were on the scene almost immediately. They rushed the thirty-nine year old Negro leader to a hospital, where he died of a bullet wound in the neck.”

“What happened?” I cried.

My father remained stoic on the couch. “What happened?”

My father hushed me as he continued to listen to Cronkite.

“Police said they found a high-powered hunting rifle about a block from the hotel, but it was not immediately identified as the murder weapon. Mayor Henry Loeb has reinstated the dusk to dawn curfew he imposed on the city last week, when a march led by Dr. King erupted in violence. Governor Beaufort Ellington has called out four thousand National Guardsmen. And police report that the murder has touched off sporadic acts of violence in a Negro section of the city.”

I found my mother in the kitchen sobbing. “What happened?” She just sobbed.

I returned to the porch where Martin Luther King was on TV: “Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they have committed themselves to that over that. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights!”

That emphatic, trembling, furious voice struck me with feeling, even without meaning. I didn’t know what he said or what it meant, but his words were resplendent and powerful and touched me. I returned to the kitchen.

“Who was he? What happened?”

pall-life-07-30-1951-997-a-M5She slowly inhaled a long, concentrated and defiant drag of her Pall Mall cigarette; she nurtured and absorbed the smoke in her lungs, and with startling indifference, exhaled. The edgy energy of our household, wired in unease and secure in knowledge, could be quantified and measured by the density of cigarette smoke adrift in the air. Pal Mal was my parents cigarette, as well as their Wellesley, Harvard and MIT friends. Everyone smoked then.

I liked the Flintstones. My parents saw none of that, even as I loved the Flintstones and The Honeymooners. They were strangely similar. The Flintstones episodes always began, “The Flintstones have been brought to you by Winston, America’s best-selling, best tasting cigarette. Winstons taste good, like a cigarette should.”

My grandfather loved sitcoms, and shows like Hogan’s Heroes, Get Smart and The Honeymooners. All silly humor. As Col. Hogan would snatch a cigar off of the desk of the vainglorious Col. Klink, and nab another to offer back to the nit, my grandfather invariably lit his elegantly carved Mira sheen pipe, producing a soothing rich aroma. Sgt. Shultz brayed in his silly Teutonic accent, “I know nothing! Nothing! Nothing!” Later I learned that John Banner, who played Sgt. Schultz, was Jewish and lost his family to the Nazi’s extermination. Mordant humor I knew nothing of, but I enjoyed his humor in my ignorance.

My mother continued sobbing. She breathed, and I waited. I was helpless and that worried me.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. march on Washington in 1963. (Wikipedia)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. march on Washington in 1963. (Wikipedia)

“A very great man died tonight,” she said, “a very good man who helped people who were suffering.” She continued, “There are people in this country who are not able to ride a bus or sit at a lunch counter or drink from a water fountain because they have dark skin, and he fought to make sure everyone has the same rights.”

“You mean like Grandpa?” I asked. “Yes, but he’s not discriminated against, because he’s not black. He’s a very dark man, but not black.”

I didn’t know the difference. I was confused.

“Martin Luther King was great because he was non-violent. He led marches and was jailed, and terrible things happened to the marchers. He worked so many people, especially in the South, could have basic rights. Marchers would be attacked by dogs and water-hoses.”

I imagined my dog, Fritzy, and our water hose. Neither sounded bad. “Water?”

“Terrible! These hoses are so strong that that they can rip through clothing!”

That seemed unbelievable to me, but my mother was so emotional and emphatic that I listened. “Martin Luther King gave a great speech, saying he had a dream that black and white people would be equal, and for his efforts he was murdered.”

It was a terrible year in 1968. The Vietnam War raged. That was part of it every night. A few weeks later in June,  Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination ended the summer before it began.

My Lai massacre: One of Ronald Haeberle's photos taken at My Lai which helped expose the massacre four years after it occurred. (Wikipedia)
My Lai massacre: One of Ronald Haeberle’s photos taken at My Lai which helped expose the massacre four years after it occurred. (Wikipedia)

Wellesley refused to lower the flag to half-staff in honor Martin Luther King, so my parents moved to Newton.

As Wellesley was racist, Newton was anti-sematic. Jews were not allowed to join the Brae Burn Country Club in back of our house, and the woman’s club excluded Jews as well as Catholics. It’s crazy, because today Waban (a village in Newton) has one of the most active Jewish communities in the country. When Israeli Prime Ministers visit the United States, they come to Newton. Barry’s Village Deli is a classic with frequent patrons such as Barney Frank.

My mother became socially active. I tailed her at anti-war and feminist rallies. She became active in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and President of MORAL (Massachusetts Organization to Re-appeal Abortion Laws), which became NARAL. There were fights. Lots of fights. Some between neighbors, others in the family, some at school. Always loud. The Vietnam War raged, and conflict was ubiquitous and without end.

Today ravaged streets of inner Baltimore have scars from another age; reconstruction, Jim Crow laws and civil rights struggles. Boarded up homes remain from the Baltimore Riot of 1968.

The Bawlmer brogue of The Block and the fancy-schmancy crowd betting on their favorite horse at the Preakness Stakes, Baltimore is an abundantly historic city, ready and anxious for re-awakening. Baltimore’s style mirrors the astringent bravura of H.L. Mencken, whom one love and hates simultaneously. Mark Kram called Baltimore a “January sort of city even in summer” in his magnificent and angry essay for Sports Illustrated in 1966: A Wink at a Homely Girl.

Baltimore needs jobs. Justus Heger
Baltimore needs jobs. (Justus Heger)

Yet amid the debris, a new Baltimore has ineffably, slowly, and persistently been emerging. James Rouse’s Harborplace is a triumph of urban design and planning. Near Inner Harbor and Camden Yards, Oriole Park’s fantastic retro design dominates the city. It inspired the Red Sox to emulate it with a New Fenway Park, until Mike Ross and other lugubrious lovers of old historic Fenway Park prevented revitalization.

Undoubtedly, Baltimore is on the edge of major urban renewal. Decades ago, Washington, DC was similarly blighted. As Washington, DC’s renewed metropolis moves closer to Baltimore, it is inevitable that its expansion will encompass Baltimore, much like New York City enveloped Stamford, CT. In time, an array of corporations based their headquarters in Stamford rather than pricier New York, and urban blight became part of its past. So too, the aristocratic class ringing Baltimore, like those in southern Connecticut, inevitably will refocus their eyes home rather than away.

Forty-five years have passed since Martin Luther King, Jr. was tragically killed on that April evening. As we parade in his honored name, we celebrate Baltimore’s citizenry, its rich and varied past, and we embrace a bright future. Baltimore has saved others. Now itself: even as James and Dolly Madison fled the White House, Baltimore stood its ground against the British in the War of 1812. The “rockets’ red glare” in the Star Spangled Banner refer to Baltimore.

Baltimore celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day (MLK Day) on January 20th with a parade down Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

What if MLK lived? What would the world be like today? Please read this viewpoint.

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