We have celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
I was too young to remember that day. But I do remember when MLK was killed.
It was a spring day in New York City’s Morningside Heights. The neighborhood has since been gentrified, but back then it was a working class neighborhood – with expensive apartments overlooking Riverside Drive on the west side of the neighborhood, and the inner city of Harlem on the east side.
I was six years old. The day was clear so you could easily see down to the end of our street on Amsterdam Avenue. A portion of the grounds of the Cathedral of Saint John the Devine covered the eastern portion of our street so that you could not drive through. In those days there was a very tall flag post that stood there flying a huge American flag. (In later years it was replaced by a rather hideous statue – I don’t know if that is still there.)
That day, my six year old eyes saw the flag was half way down the flag post. Someone had explained to me that this was called “Half-mast” and it was done to honor someone who had died.
My friend Roger was riding his five-speed Stingray bicycle, with the Monkey handlebars and the Banana seat. Roger was a year younger than me and his older sister Francine was in the same grade as my brother Leo. Roger’s older brother Bryan was in the same grade as my brother Roman. Roger’s Mom worked for Columbia University in the computer department. Columbia University was my Mom’s employer too. They lived in the building next door. I even remembered the day they moved in, excited about seeing that there was a family with kids the same ages as our – kids we could hang out with.
Our families were close.
I looked at Roger and said, “They are flying the flag at Half-mast,” showing off my new vocabulary.
Roger said, “I know. It’s for Martin Luther King. They killed him.”
In the living room of Roger’s family apartment there were pictures. Almost like the ones that my parents put up of Catholic saints and being Polish, the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Czestochowa. But the pictures in the “shrine” area in Roger’s house weren’t reproductions of paintings; they were black and white photographs: of the youthful President John F. Kennedy and of Martin Luther King. These were their heroes.
Roger started to ride away on his bicycle in slow turning loops looking down the street at the flag. Usually Roger would race his bike quickly down the street – peddling fast and then braking hard to make the tires squeak. That day he was just not in the mood.
Roger was Black. That’s what we called it in those days rather than African-American. It was a bit of an odd term for Roger because his Afro was not entirely dark like his siblings, it was highlighted with Auburn. This made Roger stand out in any crowd and the consensus in the neighborhood was that he was just the cutest boy around. Since Roger was raised to be very polite by his parents, most adults liked him immediately.
I remember looking at Roger slowly ride his bike that day and feeling bad. I knew that killing a famous man, a good man like Martin Luther King was wrong. But now it was personal. Whoever had killed MLK had made my friend sad. They had hurt Roger. That made it worse.
Over twenty years later I would be fortunate enough to meet Coretta Scott King, MLK’s widow, at a charity event. In the brief time I got to spend with her I tried to express my admiration for her and her husband. I’m sure I feel short.
While nothing I felt could have compared to what Mrs. King must have suffered in 1968, my six year old mind could comprehend a simple thing.
Someone had hurt Roger – and that was wrong.