Today is 4/4 and 44 years ago, that date was one that is defining for a generation. I’m sure that the classmates and friends I was with also remember it as if it were yesterday. It was a Thursday evening, and I was in a student government meeting in the Student Center at Howard University in Washington, D.C.. And since it was Thursday – ROTC day – I was still in my uniform. Before the meeting was over, someone came into the room and told us that someone had shot Dr. King in Memphis. A hush fell over the room, and a few short minutes later, someone else came back to tell us that Dr. King had been pronounced dead.
We left the Student Center, and before I got to my car a block or two away, I could smell smoke and see flames; Washington was starting to burn. I got to my apartment off 17th Street NW and was thankful that the fires and rioting hadn’t moved up as far north as I was. Arriving home, I immediately turned on the TV and heard all of the confusing reports about what had happened in Memphis and what was happening in DC and other cities.
The phone rang, and it was my mom calling to check on me. I assured her that I was safe, but you know moms: saying so just wasn’t enough. I told her that I would remain in my apartment and under no circumstances would I venture out. Being mom, she asked if there was enough food in the apartment. I told her yes. I just didn’t tell her that it was Vienna sausages, crackers, noodles, Cheerios and beer (18 was the drinking age back then); my roommate and I could last three or four days at least!
At some point Mayor-Commissioner Walter Washington (DC didn’t have an elected mayor at that point) declared a curfew, and then we learned that the University had been closed. This was a concern because, back in March, we had missed a week of school when students took over Howard University and demanded reforms and the resignation of our president, James Nabrit. (See “Eyes on the Prize, Episode 11. Look who appears at 26:30.)
Note also that Easter was April 14th, and we usually had Spring Break then, so would we graduate in June after being out of school so much? We didn’t know for sure at that time, but they ended up crafting a 2nd semester plan to make up some of the missing days. As we watched what was happening all over the country, graduation quickly became a secondary concern as we wondered about the future of the United States of America! Seeing so many cities on fire and seeing the rioting was sobering for sure, but asking how we would fix the frustration and despair behind it all was the unanswered question.
We have seen much progress in the 44 years since Dr. King’s assassination, but every day we see the reminders about how much further we need to go to realize “The Dream.” Forty-four years from today, where will we as a nation be?