A momentous year in my life, 1968, is one that historians would surely include in their list as well. I had moved to Memphis in July 1967, and was settling into my first academic job at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital when the new year began. The nation was engaged in two great battles: the war in Vietnam and the civil rights struggle. The air was filled with tension, polarization, demonstrations, rioting, civil disobedience, and a deep sense of unease and anger. In this medium, acts of violence and lawlessness were selectively condemned or justified depending on one's viewpoint.
In 1968, the first 100 days alone were filled with remarkable events. On the war front, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Holiday offensive, their first major attack on cities that signaled the beginning of the end of the US effort. In a single week in February, 543 Americans were killed in action and 2,547 were wounded, the highest toll in the war to that time. And Walter Cronkite, the country's most respected and best known journalist, returned from Vietnam to give the American people a sober report highly critical of the positive statements on the progress of the war by US officials.
There were two important events in the other battle. On February 4th Martin Luther King Jr. gave a sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta that was prophetic. He said that after his death, “I'd like for somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody…that I tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, if you want to, say that I was a drum major for peace….for righteousness.”
Meanwhile the City of Memphis was engaged in its own skirmish; the city sanitation workers, virtually all African-American, were on strike for better wages and working conditions.
The events of 1968 that most affected me began with my father's death in Chicago on February 29th. He had been ill for years and I had been anticipating and mourning his loss for months, but we were close and his example and wise counsel were irreplaceable.
In March the lunchroom conversation among faculty at St. Jude had for days been about the sanitation workers' strike and the upcoming march. The workers' pay and working conditions were indefensible. Someone suggested that we join the march scheduled for Thursday, March 28th.
That morning, under threatening skies, four of us walked south the mile and a quarter from St. Jude to the staging area for the march, the Clayborn Temple AME Church on Hernando Street.
A large and influential African-American church, it was led by its pastor James Lawson, a charismatic civil rights leader. Lawson had asked Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Memphis to support the sanitation workers.
We carried umbrellas, which the organizers soon took away from us— “sorry, no one carries potential weapons.” White posters the size of a newspaper page were displayed throughout the crowd. The messages, printed in large black letters, varied—the three I remember were: “Honor King: End Racism!” “Union Justice Now!” And the most memorable, “I Am A Man!”
Led by Martin Luther King Jr. and James Lawson, the march began with the four of us back in the middle of the pack. We marched west toward the Mississippi River and Main Street where the marchers would turn north toward the destination, Memphis City Hall.
The mood was sober and marchers spoke in low tones, if at all. Our group was within sight of Main Street where the vanguard of the marchers had already turned when I heard something I shall never forget: a very loud, deep thud followed instantaneously by the protracted crashing of glass. It sounded like a brick or piece of concrete going through a large plate glass window.
After a second or two of stunned silence—pandemonium; people screaming, pushing and shoving, running or frozen in place. The posters soon were scattered on the ground.
The four of us looked at each other and without a word, we started running up a convenient alleyway north toward St. Jude. (I somehow had the presence of mind to pick up two of the posters, which hang in my office today.)
The march turned violent; a 16-year-old boy was killed, 60 people were injured, and 150 were arrested. Here is the entry from my journal for that day:
28 March 1968
Four of us, Tom [Walters], Dave [Kingsbury], and Herb [Ennis], joined a march of the sanitation workers today, but about 1/3 of the way to the city hall, window breaking and looting started so we left. We could smell tear gas on our way back to St. Jude. We were later told that the march never reached city hall, that Martin Luther King left the march when rioting began, and that chaos reigned in the downtown area. In any case, what began as a labor-civil rights march has rapidly degenerated into a riot catalyzed by teen age boys. It is sad. For those who worked so hard to bring a point to bear, for the sanitation workers, for future race relations and for the city of Memphis, the scars of this day will not be covered easily.
The city was in a panic. A night-time curfew was declared, the schools were closed, the National Guard was called in, and we at St. Jude were issued special identification cards for travel during the curfew to see patients.
The next day I remember driving home in the early evening on Walnut Grove Road, a normally busy street. It was deserted. People were afraid and were staying in their homes. As I crossed Perkins Avenue, one block before the turnoff onto my street, and headed up a small hill, an army tank crested the hill and came toward me.
I was astonished and then angry that the tank was called in and was prowling around my neighborhood, nine miles from where the rioting had taken place.
Some of our neighbors, born and raised in the Memphis area, were panic-stricken. Across the street Sam (not his real name) had gotten his arsenal out and declared that he would shoot anyone who came up his driveway. Sarah (not her real name), who lived next door to him, phoned my wife crying in fear that “they” would break into her home and attack her and her kids. She said her husband was away and asked my wife Pat to go over and stay with her. Pat, being a practical sort, called Sam and told him not to shoot at her, after which she took our kids and went to the neighbor's house. She found Sarah and her small children crying, petrified and kneeling on the living room floor praying.
The mood remained tense, but settled down enough so a week later Martin Luther King Jr. was back in Memphis. He was meeting with local civil rights leaders to make plans for the Poor People's March on Washington. Then on Thursday, April 4 at 6 pm, he and his colleagues stepped outside their rooms at the Lorraine Motel and were chatting before going out to dinner. King was shot with a single bullet to the head. He was pronounced dead an hour later at St. Joseph Hospital, next door to St. Jude. Here is my journal entry.
5 April 1968
Last night about 6 PM, Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed by a sniper while emerging from his hotel here in Memphis. My first reaction was shock followed quickly by despair. My faith in the fundamental goodness of man and in his ability to adapt to progress and justice was severely shaken. My own life and work seemed so meaningless as I watched the television obituaries and reviews of the life of King. I feel a deeper personal loss at this time than I can express. Deeper than at the time of Dad's death, because I had mourned him for months before. Scattered violence has broken out here—I don't know what's going to happen.
We were stunned and glued to the TV, just as we were after the assassination of John Kennedy. The assassination sparked rioting, burning, and looting in many cities across the country, including Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Baltimore, Boston, Newark, and Washington. There were reports of 46 deaths attributable to the rioting.
The national press vilified Memphis and the South; Time Magazine famously called Memphis a “backwater,” enraging the clueless mayor, Henry Loeb. The press also was full of soul-searching and hand-wringing, which reflected the confusion, fear, and uncertainty of the public. And for me, it was a time of darkness, despair, and depression.
10 April 1968
The eulogies and marches and ceremonies were sometimes moving, often trite, and rarely inspiring. While the middle-class whites of Memphis were generally sorry King was killed, especially [that it happened] in Memphis, their attitude was “so what do you expect from a trouble maker?” I feel alienated from most whites and most Negroes. There is hope, but a tenuous hope born of tragedy and guilt. I'm doubtful that it is an active hope and an enduring hope.
But 1968 was not yet finished with us. Student demonstrations over various issues flared up all over Europe, Latin America, and North America, some turning violent.
Then in June Robert Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in San Francisco, apparently in anger over pro-Israel speeches Kennedy had made.
In August the Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned into a debacle following provocative demonstrations by the Yippies and the widely televised thuggish reaction of Mayor Richard Daley and the Chicago Police.
It would take 30 years for those images to fade from the public memory and Chicago's reputation. And in November, by the narrowest margin in history to that time, Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States.
The stormy winds of 1968 had severely shaken my emotions and ideas. But the winds also blew the last remnants of fog away from my views of social justice, war, politicians, and other issues of the day.
Our relocation to St. Jude and Memphis, the death of my father, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and all the other remarkable events and experiences molded my character.
And they provided me with lenses that would serve from then on to influence and clarify my vision of the world and my role in it. For me 1968 was many things, but especially a year of anguish and clarity.