Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Rim Country woman recalls Memphis the day after Martin Luther King's assassination 50 years ago

I Remember…..

By Kathy Morgan
Special to the Rim Country Gazette

I was 23 years old, having left a marriage that had lasted only two years, and I was beginning my next new life with a new man.  On a hot, sunny spring day, April 5, 1968, I found myself riding shotgun in the passenger seat of a dated Chevy sedan while Bob drove relentlessly through the sleepy rural countryside of west Mississippi, as we headed due north on US Highway 51.  

We were headed to Memphis, Tennessee, a long four hundred miles from New Orleans, but we weren’t going for pleasure. Bob’s work assignment was to report on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which had occurred the day before on April 4, 1968.  

The violent death of Dr. King had caused the nation to explode with looting and rioting across the country. The beloved leader of the civil rights movement was the one person who could keep the simmering anger and frustration in check and now he was gone. 

On the day after his death, Memphis, like many other cities across the nation, was in “lock-down” with the National Guard on duty, and a dusk-to-dawn curfew in effect. As we drove into the city, we saw the empty streets, breathed in the harsh, rancid smell of distant fires, and felt the silence and tension in the city - it was eerie, spooky, and frightening.

Once we arrived in Memphis, now quite late in the afternoon, Bob and I went to the home of a local black man for the interview; dusk had come and gone, and we needed to get back to our car which was parked a block or two up the deserted street.  

The two of us started walking, with frightened teenagers wearing National Guard uniforms holding loaded rifles pointed directly at us, nervously watching us as we moved past them. The young men in uniform understood that curfew meant “no one allowed on the streets,” but did that mean “no one” or just “no blacks?”  

Sensing their confusion, we held our breath and kept our heads down, praying they wouldn’t do anything stupid – like shoot us - and we walked as quickly as we could without actually running, finally reached the parked car, opened the doors, and jumped inside.  

I don’t know how long it took for me to stop shaking. The heavy scent of fear that night, the threat of imminent violence, the image of guns held at the ready - each man just waiting for a reason to pull the trigger - made me realize that my safe, comfortable, middle-class world was a faint memory and my new life now included danger and possibly even death.

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