I was only 8 in 1968 when Dr. King was murdered, but I clearly remember watching the images flicker across the black and white set in my parents’ bedroom. My family stood around open-mouthed, not fully understanding the impact of the events in Memphis.
First the shock that another voice of peace had been silenced, then the fear that America was spinning out of control, and the very real feeling that something BIG was coming down. Notions of conspiracy, and of revolution, and talk of what we would do if the violence reached us.
America burned in the days to follow. One hundred cities saw rioting. Days later, driving through the gutted, burned streets of Cincinnati with my Uncle Joe and Grandpa Sandy, we surveyed the damage. It felt surreal. It felt like a War Zone.
My Rabbi at the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation had marched with Dr. King, identifying with the civil rights struggle as so many liberal Jews did. He spoke to our congregation about the widening division between Black and White, rich and poor, capital and labor. He preached the need for involvement. I embraced that notion of social activism, and made a commitment that I would be part of the solution, not the problem. A commitment that eventually led me to join the Peace Corps and serve as a volunteer in Central Africa for 2 years.
So it is 40 years later, and the cities of America have long since stopped smoldering. And yet, while much progress has been made, the same struggle for human, civil and economic freedom continues to rage on. Today a stifling political correctness pervades our culture. Gone is the heady sense of freedom and potential that the Sixties and its imminent change suggested. Today our ‘leaders’ feed us a steady diet of fear and fabrication. Tracking chips in our passports, and invasion of our privacy, and armed soldiers on our streets and in our subways is a fair exchange, we are told, for a sense of security. The enemy is terror, and he is everywhere and coming for us soon. We are engaged in a moral war, and yes, a very real global war as well.
The prospect of our first Black President gives me occasion for hope. Barack Obama is a man who epitomizes the social activism we espoused back in those brutal days. His candidacy suggests that the country might just be ready to transcend the ugliness that drove the events of that April day back in 1968. One can only hope.
This is a day for reflection.