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The night Dr. Martin Luther King was shot, four of us—small-town, small-college, white boys—were following the Gulf’s eastern shore on an all-night trek from south Florida to New Orleans. It was spring break, 1968, only a few months from the summer that seemed to change all of our lives.
We heard about Dr. King’s death over the AM band on the radio in that ’62 Chevy with the Iowa plates. We were on our way to New Orleans’ French Quarter, sin city, four lusty guys, tired and sun-burned, traveling along some several hundred comfortable miles south of our own birthright Christianity.
From the time we’d scarfed down cheap burgers for late supper, through the next morning’s first whispered glow, that radio kept spilling news about King’s death — news stories interrupting music, statements being read by just about anybody important enough to merit air time, memorials and obituaries. James Earl Ray had killed Martin Luther King outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
The sun wore a heavy mask of gulf fog that morning when light opened our eyes to the coast. I don’t remember where we were, but the chore of keeping ourselves awake made us pull over at the nearest dive, however seedy. It was still before six. Two guys kept right on sleeping in the back seat, but two of us walked up to the door of a greasy spoon and found it very much awake.
What we saw inside remains the most vivid picture I took during the 1968 spring break. The place was full of rednecks, open bottles standing on the tables, even though it was a cafe and not a bar. A sign up near the cash register claimed proceeds that day would go to the Klan. The jukebox wailed out music I’d never heard before, half rock ‘n’ roll, half-country, all thick with racist spit. I remember wanting to write down the lyrics as we sat there and waited for hotcakes, but I was bloody scared. These guys were men other men know as dangerous, just by sight. We had walked right into an all-night party–all-male, all-white, and all hate, in celebration of a dead man sprawled in a mass of blood on a motel balcony.
We sat quietly and ate a breakfast served up, ironically, by a cook whose black face appeared then disappeared above the window shelf where plates full of breakfast came up miraculously from the back.
The partiers, mostly drunk, were oblivious to us. As I remember it now, years later, we ate hotcakes in fear and shock, as if some omniscient theater director had staged this moment for us, something we’d never seen before and would never see again.
That’s what I remember best about the night Dr. King was murdered. That’s what I know of unalloyed racist hate.
But Martin Luther King had come into my life several years earlier, when my friend’s father, a good man, asked me to go along to a meeting that had been spread around in whispers and fleeting glances, a get-together of like minds in a huge mansion, on the bluffs above Lake Michigan in a small Wisconsin city near the town where I grew up. Mid-sixties, middle of the Cold War, and I was barely 16, an evangelical Christian, a sworn enemy of atheistic communism, a patriotic American kid who that very fall wrote a civics essay about American responsibility in Southeast Asia in the face of the global communist menace. I still have that essay, written in a fine cursive hand.
We sat on folding chairs in an upstairs room in that mansion — not just steel folding chairs, but padded folded chairs — in straight rows, facing a screen. The meeting was opened in fervent prayer. I remember feeling excited about being in that place, as if we were banded together like the disciples, doing upper-room plotting to determine what measure of righteousness America needed. Invitation to the mansion had come only by word of mouth, and, even thought I was just a kid, I felt privileged to be there, a meeting, I later discovered, of the Sheboygan chapter of the John Birch Society.
The feature of that evening’s meeting was a slide/tape presentation featuring Martin Luther King caught in candid shots talking to people who the taped voice insisted were communists. This was Wisconsin, after all, home to Senator McCarthy. The clearly stated message of the presentation I understood because I knew my own father somehow believed it: that behind the movement for civil rights in America, the Russian bear–atheist communism–sat back calmly and waited, like some forest cousin, to devour the honey sweetness of American liberty.
I respected my father, as I did my friend’s-father, the man who’d asked me to come along. Maybe that’s why my memories of that furtive mansion meeting is complicated by my own respect for those men and their devotion, their love of country, of culture, of home.
Those two moments in my life — an all-night bayou drunken bash and an evening’s anti-communist meeting, shrouded in secrecy and glutted with conspiracy theory, both virulently racist — clash in tone and spirit, but the line that separates them is thread-thin.
Most of us do not find hate particularly attractive. Love redeems us, cleanses us, after all. I’ve never felt any affinity with the men in the all-night diner, but I still admire the man who brought me along to the mansion, even though that night and forever since I’ve not shared his politics.
In those moments when I feel latent racism running in me—as I do—I know that its source is often least recognizable and most unmanageable when it emerges from love. Hate is not one of the seven deadlies, oddly enough, although it has a kissing cousin in Wrath.
The king of the deadlies, to the world of medieval theologians and the world we know today, is pride, pride in self first of all, but also pride in culture, in country, in race—pride that sometimes shows itself as love, a clever disguise for its opposite.
That much I learned one dark early morning on Spring Break, 1968.