Forty Years Hence

A shocking assassination, as viewed from the suburbs

I remember Martin Luther King's assassination. At least I remember being at a friend's house that evening, and overhearing the grownups talking about it over cocktails. At 9, I was more puzzled than shocked by the news. In April 1968 I thought Martin Luther King was a singer, and that he was already dead.

That fact might be hard for modern 9-year-olds to believe. All kids today know who Martin Luther King was. There are pictures of him on the bulletin boards of public-school kindergartens. If the kids forget, there's a day every year to remind them.

It wasn't that way during Martin Luther King's actual life.

I'd probably seen Martin Luther King on a black-and-white set. There was another famous black man who wore suits and ties on TV. He had three names, one of which was King. Nat King Cole. I got them mixed up.

I wasn't all that dumb. I could find Vietnam on a map, and I knew a little about President Johnson, whom I'd once seen in a parade on Cumberland Avenue. He'd just dropped out of the presidential race; I'd seen his speech on TV. So I was rooting for Robert Kennedy, just because his big brother had been the first president I was aware of, and it seemed to me only fair that Robert should complete a term that had ended unnaturally.

If you'd asked me what segregation was, I couldn't have told you. It was, I think, a seventh-grade word.

At 9 I was vaguely aware that I had never been in a classroom with a black kid, or played baseball on the same field as a black kid, or been in a swimming pool with a black kid. There was one black kid at Presbyterian church camp, and he seemed as exotic as if he'd been an Eskimo.

Teachers in my school taught lessons about historic black leaders: George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington were the main ones. Earlier in fourth grade, I'd had to write a short paper about Marian Anderson and her famously controversial appearance at the Lincoln Memorial. I thought it had happened recently. I learned only later that it had happened back in 1939, long before I was born.

Kids often seem to be a little behind the times. Our public-school textbooks had probably been published in 1949.

I don't remember anyone who was happy that King was shot, but, to be honest, if I knew anyone who was particularly upset about it, they didn't share it with me.

Everybody did hope they'd catch the guy. Folks kept an eye out for a white man in a Ford Mustang with a widow's peak and a "silly smile." Scripps chipped in $25,000 to the reward for capturing the unnamed killer. The adults I knew did seem relieved that they finally caught the guy who did it, and especially that he wasn't a Southerner.

That's about all I remember. Curious about how Knoxville reacted, I went back and looked at the newspapers. The News-Sentinel's editorials were pretty standard, decrying both the assassination and the street violence that followed in cities across the nation. The regular personal columnists weren't eager to remark on the killing.

The Journal was the more conservative of the two papers, and the first issue, printed just hours after the shooting, included some criticism of King in an editorial column called "King Knew Violence Planned" obviously written before the news from Memphis. Citing the reports from a senatorial subcommittee, the editorial seemed to imply that King was deliberately provoking violent unrest. "Deeply disturbing...are the militant statements being made by King's organizers to religious groups." The example was a perhaps out of context line from King aide Andrew Young: "If Congress is not prepared to give up part of its power, all of it will be taken away."

It was apparently in reference to King's leadership of the prospective Poor People's March, to be held in Washington a few weeks later. In the days before King's assassination, the Journal had raised anxiety about the demonstration as "revolutionary." When the Journal used that word, it was rarely a compliment.

Two days earlier, an even stranger editorial ostensibly about Robert Kennedy's "impudence and colossal gall," criticized his involvement in King's planned march, which the Journal characterized as an "invasion of Washington" and an "effort to blackmail Washington" which might cause "near revolution, as many fear it will...." It even calls it a "bombing" comparing it, oddly, to the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam.

However, the first editorial written after King's assassination is almost eloquent: "Men of good will throughout the nation learned with sorrow of the assassination in Memphis.... None will fail to recognize the slaying of the civil rights leader as anything short of a national disaster."

Knoxville flags were lowered to half-mast the day after the shooting. As many of the nation's cities saw looting and arson, Knoxville Mayor Leonard Rogers made a plea for Knoxvillians to react separately, "according to their own plans, rather than attempting to have a mass meeting at this time." He added that the city was discouraging marches or street gatherings, but there were a few moments of civil disobedience of the mildest sort.

On the following Sunday afternoon, Palm Sunday, some 60 ministers, priests, and rabbis assembled on Market Square and marched silently to the Civic Auditorium, where an audience of 2,000 participated in a memorial service.

But at the time, about 175,000 lived in Knoxville, and most of us just went about our business, starting a garden, or doing our taxes, watching UT beat Villanova in a major meet at Tom Black Track that Saturday, where Richmond Flowers was a favorite in the high hurdles. Some of us remember going to the Tennessee Theatre to see the latest Disney movie, Blackbeard's Ghost, "The Most Hilarious Haunting in History," which opened that weekend. For most white people, life went on. We probably ought to admit that.