We all remember where we were on April 4, 1968. We remember when we first heard that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot. We remember learning soon after that he had died. Indeed, that he had been assassinated.
We already had lived through the assassinations of President Kennedy and Malcolm X. We did not know that Robert Kennedy would be killed two months later.
Depending on where we lived, we either watched the riots on television or saw our neighborhoods burn. In my hometown of Indianapolis, the absence of large scale riots was attributed to a speech Robert Kennedy, then campaigning for president, gave in a park that night in a black neighborhood.
“The Armor We Still Need” by A’Lelia Bundles in Rochelle Riley’s The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery (Wayne State University Press 2018)
Last year I included my memories of that day and the months that followed in an essay I wrote for Rochelle Riley’s book, The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery. Here is an excerpt:
I still can feel the sting. Prickly flares of embarrassment radiate from my ribs. A half-century later, I am isolated and hot. A half-century later, I also am clear that this fiery shame is not justified. But as a teenager, I do not know how to extinguish it. I have no weapons for the battle.
It is the fall of 1968. I am in my high school American history class, in an affluent suburb of Indianapolis. I am the only black student in the classroom, in an overwhelmingly white public school, seated at a desk in the center row, halfway down the aisle.
The day’s topic is the Civil War.
On this day, we are reading from the textbook. My eyes lock on a section titled “Negro Slavery.” It is the first time this semester I have seen a reference to people of African descent. The boldface letters blare from the page.
What I remember from that chapter is this: “Slaves” —not “enslaved people,” as scholars now prefer to say, but “slaves” —were “contented” and well cared for by their kind and benevolent masters.
…I don’t yet know about resistance and revolt. None of my textbooks has included Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman. Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass are absent from the curriculum.
…On April 4, 1968, a few months before that history class, I was elected vice president of my school’s student council. Later that day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Celebration quickly turned to anguish.
The next morning, I learned that a few white parents had called the school to complain about the election. For the most part, teachers and school administrators, who had mentored and nurtured me, also shielded me from that nasty parental bigotry. The next spring, when I ran for student council president, there were uncomfortable undercurrents around race and gender. There had never been a black female in that position. Another candidate who had been involved in student government was my opponent. The principal’s son, who had little previous leadership involvement, ran for vice president. During my campaign speech, I was heckled by a handful of students from a corner of the auditorium. I lost by a few votes.
I don’t remember any particular sense of sadness or defeat, perhaps because I understood exactly what had been engineered. I moved on. I spent part of the summer at a camp for high school journalists at Northwestern University, in a decidedly more progressive environment. I began my senior year as co-editor of the newspaper and had my say through my columns. With a white male classmate, I co-founded a Human Relations Council to navigate racial tensions and build alliances in a 3,400-member student body that was less than 5 percent black.
It was a year of turmoil for America and a year of radicalization for me. I began a journey of self-discovery and self-education. At some point, I read W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. That slim volume was an elixir that offered me a combination of intellectual fireworks, historical facts, and much-needed affirmation.
The Burden includes essays by Rochelle Riley, Herb Boyd, Charlene Carruthers, Patrice Gaines, Paula Madison, Julianne Malveaux, Vann Newkirk, Leonard Pitts, Tim Reid, DeWayne Whickham and Tamara Winfrey-Harris.
You can purchase The Burden here.