The night 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—50 years ago.
We heard about King’s death over the AM band on the console radio in that ’62 Chevy with the Sioux County 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 Dutch reformed 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, not all that far north of us, it seemed.
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 Chev’s backseat, 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 Ku Klux Klan.
The jukebox wailed out music I’d never heard before, half rock ‘n’ roll, half-country, lyrics thick with racist spit. I remember wanting to write down the words as we sat there and waited for hotcakes, but I was too bloody scared. These guys were the kind of men other guys know as dangerous, just by sight. We had walked right into an all-night party—all-male, all-white all hate—in celebration of the death of Dr. King 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, half-potted, were oblivious to us. As I remember the place now, a half-century later, we ate hotcakes in fear and shock of what was happening all around, as if some omniscient theater director had staged this play for us. But it was no play.
That’s what I remember best about the night Dr. King was murdered. That scene and those men. 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, spread around in whispers and fleeting glances, a get-together of like minds in a mansion, on the bluffs above Lake Michigan in a small Wisconsin city near the town where I grew up.
Mid-sixties, in the middle of the Cold War, and I was barely 16, an evangelical Christian boy, a sworn enemy of atheistic communism, a patriotic 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.
That night in the mansion, we sat on folding chairs in an upstairs room—straight rows, facing a screen. The meeting was opened in fervent prayer. I remember feeling excited about being in that place. We were banded together like the disciples, doing upper-room plotting to determine what measure of righteousness America needed. I was just a kid at a meeting, I later discovered, of the Sheboygan chapter of the John Birch Society.
The feature that evening meeting was a slide/tape presentation featuring Martin Luther King caught in candid shots talking to people, the metallic voice insisted were communists. This was Wisconsin, after all, home to Senator Joe McCarthy. The clearly stated message of that show, I understood, because I knew my own father somehow believed it: that behind the movement for civil rights loomed the Russian bear—atheistic communism, waiting to devour the honey sweetness of American liberty. King was a commie.
I respected my father, as I did my friend’s-father, the man who’d asked me to come along to that upper-room meeting. My memories are complicated by my respect for those men and their devotion, their love of country, of culture, of home.
But those two moments in my life—an all-night bayou drunken bash and an evening’s Birch Society gathering, shrouded in secrecy and glutted with conspiracy theory—were both virulently racist. They clash in tone and spirit, but the line that separates them is thread-thin.
Most of us don’t find hate attractive. All you need is love. Love redeems us. 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 Birchers, even though that night and forever since I’ve not shared his politics.
Racism is often the least recognizable and most unmanageable when it emerges from love. Hate is not one of the seven deadly sins, 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.
One dark, early morning on spring break, 1968, what I learned about belonging was at least something of what I wasn’t, thank goodness. But also something of what I was.
And I had learned this—that life wasn’t going to be easy, not for me or any of us.
Jim Schaap spent 37 years teaching English at Dordt College. He writes almost daily at siouxlander.blogspot.com. He's written books of fiction, of history, and of meditations, most recently a novel, Looking for Dawn. Some of you may recognize him as the voice behind an ongoing weekly series of historical stories about life in Siouxland, airing Mondays at 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. on Siouxland Public Media.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. The next show is 7 p.m. Friday, July 27 at The Marquee, 1225 Fourth St., in downtown Sioux City. The theme is “Lessons Learned.” Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 day of show.