The Day That Changed My Life Forever
January 22, 2015
ON THE WEEK WE ALL REMEMBER a great man’s death, the memories still remain. This is a true story of self-awakening, purchased by the blood of another man, in a place I had thought was holy.
I spent my formative years in Kilgore, Texas, a small town in the rural South where I attended segregated public schools, played in a segregated summer baseball league, swam in a segregated city pool, drank from “whites only” drinking fountains. The only movie theater in town in my teenage years had two entrances, one in the front where white folks entered and sat on the ground floor, one on the side of the building, where black folks paid their money and hiked up the steps to their seats in the balcony.
When my voice changed to a deep bass, I graduated to the men’s section of the adult choir at the First Baptist Church. Ten days before Easter 1968, nineteen days before my 16th birthday, life as I had known it changed forever.
On April 4, 1968, a few minutes after six p.m., three hundred and eighty miles to the northeast of my hometown, James Earl Ray fired one .30-caliber shot that struck Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He died about an hour later in a Memphis hospital, having never regained consciousness.
That evening, the members of the choir were at the church house in Kilgore practicing an Easter musical presentation, a tribute to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a man unjustly executed because he dared proclaim a message of love, a revolutionary message that threatened to incite an insurrection of conscience.
A person entered from outside the sanctuary and interrupted our rehearsal as she delivered the news. “The TV is reporting that Martin Luther King has been assassinated,” she said. For a moment, silence fell over the group.
Then a man on the front row of the choir loft, an oil-field hand who could quote long passages of the Bible from memory, the sitting chairman of the board of deacons, the de facto ruling body of the church, uttered the words I shall never forget. In the sanctuary of a Christian church, in a place I believed reserved for things of the spirit, in an island of refuge from the baser instincts of men, in the very place where I sat each Sunday morning and Sunday evening and listened to sermons about grace and forgiveness, he spoke from his heart.
“I’m glad somebody finally shot that son of a bitch,” he said.
Another silence followed, a quiet unspoken assent to the most virulent form of racism, the one Dr. King had written about in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It was the pernicious, pervasive code of the White moderate who turned a blind eye to an unjust social system, perpetuating it.
Perhaps in the tender years of my youth I had taken the Christian message too seriously, given myself too fully to it, embraced it with naivete. The words of our chief deacon struck me like a two-by-four to the side of the head. All I could think in that second was that his reaction to Dr. King’s murder didn’t square with the gospel as I knew it.
If this was what church was about, you could count me out.
I have never recovered from that day. It marked the death of innocence for one teenage boy in Kilgore, Texas, while it shook the foundations of American society.
However, the lessons of scripture did not release their grip on me. Four years later, after I graduated from Kilgore College, I left town to finish an undergraduate degree in religion. I earned a master of divinity degree from a seminary in North Carolina. Later still, I pastored a Christian church while I practiced law.
Throughout the almost forty-four years that have now passed since the day Dr. King died, I have never forgotten that moment, the instant when insight came to me, the revelation that a person must seek justice for other people, must get outside his comfort zone, must try to see the world through a different lens, must speak out for what he believes is right.
I have not always lived up to these principles. When I violate them, that day in the Spring of 1968 comes back to haunt me, a day when I should have learned what it means to be a man, and a Christian.