The day Martin Luther King was assassinated was the first time I had ever heard his name.
On April 4, 1968, I was just shy of eight years old, and it was another in a series of confusing events that occurred during the past year: the riots in Newark, my parents’ separation, moving, changing schools. It was a violent year.
If I remember correctly, the announcement was broadcast during the evening news. We lived in a large house with my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, and cousins ranging in age from newborn to late teens. Pandemonium broke out as the word was passed along from one to the other in the older set: “Martin Luther King was shot! Martin Luther King was shot!” I could hear the outrage and concern in their voices as if he were a family member.
“Who is Martin Luther King?” was a question I had to ask persistently before I was paid attention to, and I now realize part of the reason for the delay in responding was their shock and the other part was that there was no simple answer.
Eventually I was told that Dr. King was someone who spoke up for black people’s rights. This explanation did not clear things up for me as my concept of racism was nonexistent or at best, vague. How do you teach that to a child so young? I was shielded from the politics, the whys, and wherefores of the riots, Dr. King’s death, and Robert Kennedy’s death that took place only a few months after Dr. King’s. I remember the two funerals receiving extensive television coverage and me being transfixed by the proceedings. Of the ’67 riots—sparked by feelings of black disenfranchisement and police brutality–I remember the sound of gunfire in the night, pulling my sheets over my head for protection as I laid in bed, remembering the admonishments about standing near the window, hoping the light pouring in from the street lamp would not lend guidance to a stray bullet. No reasons–just reactions and survival.
Music was always an integral part of our household. Toward the end of 1968, James Brown recorded his anthem of empowerment. The call and response was kid friendly and in keeping with African American ancestral and cultural tradition. I mean, how much fun was it to dance around and yell with abandon, “Say it Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud!” Before I had turned nine, however, I would experience what every black person experiences sooner or later–unabashed and blatant racism.
The first time it touches you, the feelings of anger, shame, and dismay are primal and life altering. No amount of warning can really prepare you for it. From that point forward, you are no longer innocent.
As the years passed, I learned more and more about the history I had lived though. In 1982, I participated in a march on Washington to advocate for the establishment of the Dr. King holiday. At the time, I wondered if we could have used our collective power to effect a more concrete change instead of this seemingly symbolic token.
However, I now see that the Martin Luther King holiday is necessary because it represents not only the man but the movement that began during slavery, the heroes like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and countless others, some with names unknown to us, too many to mention, those who have given their lives to the cause. This holiday is for any of us who have spoken out for rights that should never have been in question. This holiday represents our history in America. It’s a day of conscience and consciousness.
Here’s a classic from actor/rap artist/singer Mos Def, “Umi Says.” Umi, variously pronounce Oo-mee and Ah-mee, means mother in the Arabic vernacular.
© Sweepy Jean and Sweepy Jean Explores the (Webby) World, 2011