Tuesday, April 5, 2005

April 4, 1968

I was fifteen, in my last months of my freshman — and only — year at St. George’s. At nine p.m., after study hall, our dorm master and school chaplain, the Rev. Hayes Rockwell, called us into the common room on the second floor of Auchincloss Hall and said, “Well, they’ve killed Dr. Martin Luther King.”

The room was silent for a moment, but all eyes furtively turned to the only black kid in our class. His reaction was the same as ours — silence. He was the son of a wealthy Washington banker and knew as much about “the black experience” as I did. But we all knew who Dr. King was and we knew about the civil rights struggle as well as high school kids today know about the war in Iraq; a presence in the background that didn’t touch us directly but dominated the news.

The next couple of days were filled with the pictures of the nation’s shock and the news magazines and papers went through the same paroxyms of heart-tugging stories — the grieving but stoic widow, the puzzled looks on the faces of Dr. King’s young children, the sonorous tones of politicians calling for justice and healing — just as they had done in November 1963.

Over the next few weeks there was unrest in many cities, including Washington D.C., unrest that I was sure Dr. King would have hated, especially if it was done in his name, but the die was cast and the orbit shifted just a little.

Two months later it all happened again with Bobby Kennedy, and on the day of his funeral — June 8, the day I left St. George’s — they captured James Earl Ray, the man who killed Dr. King, in London. To his dying day he never said why he did it. I wonder if it’s because he saw what he — or those who were really responsible — had wrought in the world and could not, in the dark depths of his subconscous, bear to face it.