In 1962, I was seven years old. My sister and I were watching cartoons on Saturday morning when the picture tube of the television died. Ploop. Darkness. The argument about whether we would watch Tarzan or Captain Kangaroo was now moot. Mother's solution to this argument was to never repair the television.
So I never watched the moon landings. Or pictures of the Vietnam War. Or President Kennedy's speeches. I was pressed into duty handing out campaign literature for Barry Goldwater. But I never watched the Rev. Dr. King give a speech, or march; I never saw the news reels of black protesters' bodies rolling down the street assaulted by water from firehoses. I saw neither the terror nor the triumph of the civil rights movement.
I was just a young white boy in a small town in central Florida. Sure, I knew there were black and white water fountains in some places (but not at my school, where there were a few black children but they could use the same fountains). I knew there was a side of town where "they" lived. It was just across the tracks from where my mother worked, in the big white courthouse downtown. Yes, two railroad freight tracks that I never really saw, because there was no need for me to go to that part of town.
I did not know that Florida was the leading state in lynchings per capita. Nor did I know about the conditions in the orange groves and sugar cane plantations. The few black children I met at school were, as far as I could tell, well dressed and intelligent, but I learned that they could not be invited to parties.
In April, 1968, I was 12 years old and trying to survive Junior High School. I was unaware of any politics. And so on the evening of Thursday, April 4, at 6:01 PM, I was unaware that the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis while getting ready for an event in support of fair wages for black sanitation laborers. I was unaware that evening, of his death. And later that weekend, I was unaware of the massive protests and riots in Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City, Louisville, and Washington DC, and dozens of other cites I had never heard of.
Memory is a fickle friend, and I do not know, and I cannot remember ever being aware of these things. Nor can I remember when I became aware of them. But there was that one time I found out that I could not invite my black friend from junior high school over for a party. And I do not remember protesting.
So, on this day to honor the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, I find myself yearning for the memory that eludes me. Longing to conjure an image of that child of white privilege, and remember him in sympathy. To imagine him honoring King, even surreptitiously in his private thoughts, like he used to read the comics in bed with a flashlight. But there is only darkness.
Today, I assign his Letter from a Birmingham Jail to my students, in which he argues that he can no longer patiently wait for negotiations, but must create a crisis to get negotiations. I show them the letter from Birmingham clergy to which he was responding, where they argue for patience. And I teach about justice and social change, and Dr. King's beloved community where the poor, and even our enemies, are cherished.
And I still do not cross the tracks in my little Minnesota town to the neighborhood where immigrants live in trailers. And I am haunted by Jesus' reply to those who asked the question above: "Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. Depart from me..."
This is one lesson the Rev. Dr. King teaches still. We should not ignore it.