I first posted this on April 4, 2007.
Where were you on April 4, 1968? I was a senior in high school that year. And, to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, it was a very interesting time.
That particular senior year started off the previous fall with our senior-dominated football team actually winning more games than it lost. It was not a championship team by any sort of the imagination but it was an improvement over the previous years.
It set the stage for the basketball season which we all knew would be a championship season. The previous year, we had come close but lost in the regional semifinals. The core of the team, all seniors, was back and we were certain that this was to be our year. The sports writers of the state had our team as the number one team in the state and everyone (students, parents, alumni, and interested supporters) was making plans for the trip to the state tournament.
But that was not to be the case. An injury to a key player changed the dynamics of the team and allowed a rather non-descript team from across the county to beat our team in the first round of the district playoffs. What had begun as a promising senior year slowly disappeared in the mists of defeat.
Typical of that year, our traditional river boat ride on graduation night was tempered by a torrential rain storm. What was supposed to be a night of celebration simply became a long and wet boat ride. And what should have been a joyous year of victory and accomplishment was washed away by a night of thunder and rain.
But all of that is meaningless when the events of April 4, 1968, are factored into the mix. You see, my high school was Nicholas Blackwell High School in Bartlett, Tennessee. And Bartlett, Tennessee is a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee. Everything that we might have thought or planned changed that day with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I will admit that my mind was not on the struggles of the Memphis sanitation workers that brought Dr. King to Memphis. It is possible that the strike had no effect on my family since we lived out in the county rather than within the city proper. It would not be until later in life that I truly understood what brought Dr. King to Memphis. But I know that many of my classmates and their parents viewed Dr. King as an interloper and an outsider who had no business interfering in the affairs of Memphis.
The issues of race and poverty that brought Dr. King to Memphis were silent issues as far as the white citizens of Memphis and Shelby County were concerned. There would be no issue if no one would talk about it and if no one talked about it, then the problem would eventually go away. The white citizens of Memphis and Shelby County had no concern for the black citizens of Memphis and Shelby County. So why should others, such as Dr. King, show concern?
But through the lens of history, it is clear that these issues are like a malignant tumor that will grow and spread unless someone deals with them.
While I may not have been aware of the sanitation strike, I was aware how the subtle racism of the Mid-South affected my education. When I was a seventh grader in Montgomery, Alabama, I had to buy my textbooks from a book store. This was because the Montgomery school board was not going to fund textbooks if it meant that black school children were going to receive the same benefits as white students. But if you make everyone buy their own textbooks then everyone becomes equal; the only difference being that those who have the ability can buy new textbooks, the less fortunate must get by with used textbooks.
The Shelby County school board made sure that everyone, no matter whether they attended a black school or a white school, had textbooks. They just cut the funding for other things, such as chorus and band. If a band wanted new instruments or better uniforms, it was up to the parents’ association to get them. Thus school in high income areas had good instruments and fine uniforms; other schools weren’t so lucky. The effects of racism and years of neglect were probably harsher in the black schools but they impacted all the schools.
Life in Memphis the weeks following the King assassination were weeks of tension and fear. I had planned on earning some extra money keeping score in the Memphis Bowling Association Annual Tournament but the uncertainty about the situation caused each weekend’s events to be cancelled.
I am not sure if life in Memphis has changed for the better since that day in 1968. Oh, the white political machine that dominated Memphis and whose employment policies set the stage for the sanitation workers’ strike is long gone. But it has been replaced by a black political machine that is probably no better than the white political machine that it replaced. It still conducts politics as usual. Politicians line their pockets and the public pays the price.
Towns in Shelby County are still essentially divided by race and economic status. Only now the divisions are far more subtle than they were some forty years ago.
On April 3, 1968, Dr. King spoke of seeing the Promised Land. He spoke of a future that would be free of racial and economic division. I did not hear those words when he spoke them because I was not listening. I was not listening because I was more focused on another task and I was not aware of what was transpiring.
Later that spring and summer, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the riots in the streets of Chicago would tear apart the last shreds of hope of which Dr. King spoke. Richard Nixon would be elected President of the United States on a platform of law and order (meaning a maintaining of the status quo) and victory in Viet Nam.
Since that time, it seems to me that we have drifted further and further away from the goals that were expressed during the early and mid 1960’s. We have wandered away from the goals of freedom and equality for everyone that this country was founded upon. In a country that was founded on religious freedom, the right of everyone to worship as they choose, we are increasingly becoming an intolerant and inflexible society. Instead of heading to the Promised Land, the land that Dr. King spoke of, we have turned our backs on that land and gone back into slavery in Egypt.
Though I may not have spoken out as I should have back then, I was beginning to be aware of inequalities in the world around me. And as I became aware I also heard Jesus Christ was calling to me. I heard His cries against oppression and injustice. I heard His cries against a religious community that worked in conjunction with an oppressive military-based dictatorship to enslave their people.
Today, April 4, 2007, I look around and I see religious leaders who call for war when Christ calls for peace. Today I look around and I see religious leaders who exclude people when Christ called for everyone to come to Him. Today I look around and I see the divide between rich and poor growing bigger every day instead of shrinking.
On the Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus drove the moneychangers from the temple and spoke out against those who would corrupt the work of God for their own benefit. What would Jesus do today with the megachurches and pastors with million dollar incomes?
I look around and wonder if we have forgotten what Jesus taught us? I look around and wonder if the words that Dr. King spoke are now just words for the pages of history and not the call for action that there were and continue to be.
I began by asking “where were you on April 4, 1968?” It is not important that you answer that question. It is more important to ask “where are you on April 4, 2007?” Are you with Christ, calling for action against those who would seek to increase oppression and injustice? Or are you with those who in a few days will stand in Pilate’s courtyard and do the bidding of the powers that be that seek to maintain the status quo and call for the crucifixion of Christ?
You may not have been aware of what transpired in Memphis some thirty-nine years ago but you are aware of what is transpiring today. Are you going to let it happen again?