I wasn’t born when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, but I must imagine that when he was killed on April 4, 1968, it wasn’t business as usual in Black homes especially, on April 5th of that same year. I must believe that there was some sort of mental anguish and fear that went into the traumatic experience of trying to process what happened to one of our nation’s most prolific leaders and why. I must believe that there was anger and the urge to throw up both hands and quit. The title of this blog sums up the culmination of responses that I have received over the years when I asked different people, a diverse group, what did the assassinations of Dr. King and Malcolm X ultimately mean in this country?
I had the opportunity to sit down with my mother and stepmother separately and ask them what they remembered most about the day Dr. King was assassinated. My stepmother said she remembered watching the news on television in her 7th grade classroom and being afraid to walk home that afternoon. “I thought the white people were going to kill me because I was Black,” she said. “I was too young to understand that I shouldn’t be scared, but I was. I was too young to truly understand.”
She told me about arriving home and watching her parents, older siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins, cry together and separately. They all had a look of despair on their faces, and an emptiness in their eyes. “It was almost as if they were asking, if they are okay with killing Martin, how am I safe?” she said. “None of us were the same.”
My mother was living in Washington, D.C. at the time. She was a junior in high school and her memories are starkly different. She was somewhat of a militant and supported the social justice movements of the 1960’s. She was, quite frankly, tired of being told where to go and what to do simply because of the color of her skin. She shared her memories with me.
She said, “I remember the city being on fire. I wanted to go downtown and over to U Street to march with my brothers and sisters, but my mother wouldn’t allow me to go. She was in tears. My brother and I were in tears. None of us knew what to do.
“Before we knew it, there were armored trucks filled with service men on our street. Standing on the corners with machine guns across their chests, ready to shoot anyone who dared to cause a disturbance or break the new curfew law. Some of my friends saw them as a threat. I saw them as protection. My friends and I would take them lemonade and sandwiches, but we were still mad…angry, actually.
“What’s funny is everyone had their own way of supporting the protests that did not include burning buildings. I remember getting ready to go to a resistance meeting. I was picking out my afro and my mother, who was a quiet woman, came into my room and put my dashiki on the bed. She had just ironed it for me. That was her way of showing me her love and support for my activism. It moved me in a way that inspired me to go to that meeting ready to make a difference. And we did.”
It felt good to be able to sit with both and hear about which memories they have lived with and which ones they have chosen to bury. It was fascinating to receive a first-person account of what they had to endure and how mentally they really didn’t know how to cope. Mental health has grown to become a leading topic of discussion in the Black community. There was a time when it was taboo to talk about such a thing. Now, we get it. We see the need to tackle the demons that continue to spook us – many of which are to no fault of our own. It has been killings like that of Martin and Malcolm back then and Trayvon and Phillip Castille of today. How much do we have to lose before we’re finally considered safe? Safe as a people. Safe as individuals. Safe to walk down the street in a black hoodie with a bag of Skittles. Safe to drive a car. When will we have an opportunity to stop collecting deposits of subconscious of mental anguish that come when we see another Black male killed for simply being or one killed for simply fighting?
My hope is that day will soon come. I’m not sure our mental health can take anything less.