So it is April 4th, a Memphis sky...Free at Last...The memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his assassination, is one of the "defining moments" in my own personal history. On my next day of school, after the shooting, that I learned what the word prejudice meant. I learned how when people are hurt, they become angry, as did the folks I witnessed, pelting our car with bricks and rocks, as my young sister and I were told by our beloved mother, to "Get down girls; lie down on the floor of the backseat; we are going to play the quiet game. Whoever stays the quietest until we get home, wins."
I wasn't afraid; I just didn't understand.
"Mommy, why are the black people throwing rocks at us?"
"I'm going to explain when we get home, but I need you girls to behave, okay?"
So we dutifully lay down on the floor of the backseat, as mom revved the engine of our old Chevrolet, and pulled away quickly from the corner of the expensive parochial school we attended. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Academy was predominantly white, and also, Cuban. Situated in the heart of Tampa's "Ybor (pronounced eee-bohr) City", many new immigrants (escaping the fall of Batista, and the takeover by Fidel Castro) were enrolled at O.L.P H., many with scholarship assistance. Ybor City then, was little more than a slum. The school and the huge cathedral of Our Lady dominated the surroundings with ornate carvings, palm trees, and wealthy benefactors. Those who lived within walking distance of the school, were very poor, and black.
Once we arrived home, Mom carefully explained that "Someone great has died. He was a leader for peace, for all people."
"Like Jesus?" I asked.
"Yes, just like that," Mom said, while dabbing her by-now-red eyes.
The people throwing bricks and rocks, were angry, because he was killed by someone, and, well, it felt to them, like we had something to do with it."
"Well, Mom, tell them we didn't!", I offered with much frustration.
"Tell them that we are sad, too", I said earnestly.
"It's not that easy", said Mom with a sigh. "There's this thing called prejudice..."
"Prejudice", she repeated.
She went on to explain it was about judging someone based on whether their skin was lighter or darker, which was very puzzling to me. I pointed out she had darker skin, and black curly hair, while Daddy had blond hair, blue eyes, and lighter skin.
"Yes, and some people don't like that."
We put the tv on, and when I saw the police confronting black people sitting quietly with signs, I asked Mom
"Why are the police spraying the black people with water, Mommy?"
"Because sometimes, the police are wrong..." her voice trailed off, as I quickly asked,
"The police can be wrong?Then how do you know what's right?"
"In here. You know what's right, in here," she said, circling her chest. I knew that was where my heart--and likely--my soul--lived.
I suddenly understood that if everyone would listen to that inside-place, then the prejudice would not matter. It would not mater what anyone on the outside said, the prejudice would go away.
I'm still waiting for that day.
The day when we can all say,
"Free at Last, Thank God Almighty, I'm Free At Last."
Thank you, Dr. King.
And Thank You, Mom.