The Memphis Moment that Shattered Dreams

By Jamie Stiehm

April 6, 2018 5 min read

A Wisconsin girl wept on the 4th day of April.

She didn't know why Martin Luther King Jr. died. But she knew from the way the grown-ups talked that something terrible had happened, which could not be taken back. The blue lakeshore world she knew in Madison, faculty family housing, was breaking in sorrow.

The man with the melodious voice on the radio — what a voice — was slain by a white man with a gun. This speaking voice was stilled. She'd stayed up in her parents' room, awed at the sound of his voice.

"He was a good helper, wasn't he?"

Such was my understanding of the man who had a dream, delivered to the nation on a sweet summer's day in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial. He dreamt his children would one day be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. His words were etched on the nation's memory, and the meaning somehow marked mine on the day he died.

Fifty years have passed since April 4, 1968. The cruelest day of my childhood was the first act in the tragedy of the entire year. Little did we know what more was in store to shatter a state of innocence.

Here is what I sensed: a bullet ripped right through a heart holding many of us together across lines.

As I got older, I learned facts to fill in that tearful day: King was the one American leader not running for president. He was a critic of the Vietnam War, a stance he paid dearly for in the eyes of President Lyndon Johnson, a warm champion of civil rights legislation. King was a preacher and a prophet of peace. The night before he died, Nobel laureate King seemed to see his own end, in a haunting "mountaintop" speech, before his people reached the "promised land." He was 39.

Years later, early in this century, a woman went to Memphis, Tennessee, where King was murdered to see the place and to hear from a friend of his, with him that day.

Due to the good graces of the elderly Rev. Benjamin Hooks and his vibrant wife, Frances, the city's foremost civil rights leaders, my sister and I were welcomed as friends at the old motel site, now the National Civil Rights Museum.

Giving us a gift we could never repay, the Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles of Memphis led us on a private tour of the museum that ended at the perfectly preserved motel room where King spent his last hours with other Southern Baptist preachers, planning an economic justice march for Memphis sanitation workers. Kyles, who died in 2016, was one of the last witnesses to one of the saddest stories of our time.

There we were, looking into the glass that sealed the pastel-colored room. A light side of King emerged in the telling; the group of men had a playful pillow fight that day. That made me feel me feel a twinge of gladness, as I did upon learning that President Abraham Lincoln was laughing at the comedy onstage at Ford's Theatre the instant he was shot in 1865.

Kyles told us King and a circle that included the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the young Jesse Jackson, were invited to dinner at his home that very night. His wife had prepared hearty Southern dishes, and King was looking forward to a feast in an hour's time. In a mood of good cheer, he was out on the balcony when the shot rang out.

The shot rang out in our heads, then and there. Kyles made the fatal moment so real, he must have relived it. Mrs. Hooks had put us in the hands of the kind man who could take us straight to a split second in 1968.

The fugitive shot felt fresh in a hurting city where whites speak of "Elvis" by his first name, and blacks speak of "Martin."

More than once in Memphis, I heard a wrenching, wistful chorus: "You can kill the dreamer, but not the dream."

The world is still trying to put the dream back together again.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit Creators.com.

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