The Trayvon Martin shooting has brought racism and injustice front and center on the American landscape, although a very good argument could be made that they never really left. What better time to take stock of all that, and of us as a nation, than April 4, the day Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. We lost more than a courageous civil rights leader that day; we lost much of our soul and our conscience. And for me, a junior in college at the time, April 4, 1968 became a day I'll never forget both because of where I was and where I was headed.
The where I was part has to do with my serving as social chairman of Bethany College, a private liberal arts school located in the West Virginia panhandle between Pittsburgh and Wheeling. Bethany students had put their (parents) money where their mouths were in 1967-68, providing the school's social committee with $35,000 to bring quality musicians to the tiny campus. And did we ever -- from Smokey & the Miracles to the Jefferson Airplane, from the Association to Sam and Dave -- some of the most popular groups of the 1960s made the trek to our tiny campus to entertain the thousand or so Bethany students.
And on this warm spring night, it was Miss Dionne Warwick. She was one of the rock and roll divas of that time and ever since she'd blown audiences away in Paris in 1963, she was renowned for putting on a terrific concert. We met her and her small ensemble -- drums, keyboard, guitar and bass -- at the Wheeling airport where a private aircraft crew out of Arlington, Virginia deposited them. I tried to make small talk and win everyone's approval during the 12-mile ride to Bethany, but I didn't get much in the way of response from the road-weary Dionne and her compatriots. We arrived at Rhine Field House around 7 p.m., and even though the concert wasn't supposed to start until 8, the place was packed.
I felt like I'd nailed my introduction of Dionne and was reassured by the big smile on her face and the small squeeze she gave my fingers when I handed her the microphone. Contractually, she was obliged to give us two 45-minute sets with an intermission, but on the ride from the airport, we'd agreed that she'd do one 90-minute set (encores included) so that she could get back to their airport earlier and head back east at a decent hour.
Dionne Warwick looked breathtakingly beautiful that night. Her voice was even more radiant and heavenly. She put so much more of herself into her hits like "Anyone who Had Heart" and "Walk on By" and even debuted "Do You Know the way to San Jose" for us that night, making us feel even more special. By the time I was set to re-approach the microphone to bring Dionne out for one last round of applause, the evening had already become one of the best college concerts of that or any year.
And then our lives changed forever.
As I was making my way to the stage, the dean of students cut me off. The Town of Bethany sheriff, a nondescript law enforcement type whom I'd only ever observed handing out tickets or ogling coeds, accompanied him. But the tightness and pain I observed in the Dean's face made me realize that something had gone wrong, very wrong.
"Martin Luther King's been assassinated," the words jumped out of the dean's mouth. "In Memphis about an hour ago."
"Holy shit," was all I could utter as I tried to comprehend what I'd just been told.
"We need to clear the Field House this instant," commandeered the sheriff.
"But, we can't ... I mean we shouldn't," I was sputtering. "I promised Miss Warwick that she could sing one last song. Otherwise it would look like some kind of emergency." I glanced at the Dean for some adult support.
"Mr. Bradley has a point," the Dean offered. "Let's finish the concert as we agreed, let the students find this out on their own, and proceed as if nothing happened."
I thought for a minute we were getting somewhere when I caught a glimpse of Dionne Warwick standing behind the sheriff, taking in our conversation.
"What's happened?" she begged. She was looking straight at me so I felt compelled to respond.
"Dr. King's been shot. He's dead."
I've never seen the life go out of a person so quickly. And then so swiftly return.
"I want to sing,' she proclaimed. "I want to sing a tribute to Dr. King. I want to sing until I can't sing any more."
But that was all the sheriff needed to hear. What could have been one of the most poignant musical tributes ever was never to be. The house lights went up, and the students were encouraged to head to the nearest exit.
We drove back to the airport in stunned silence and filed into the tiny terminal where the pilots awaited us, Dionne Warwick and I were near the end of the line when one of the pilots stood up with a smile on his face to greet us.
"Jesus, you'd think you were at a funeral instead of a concert," he admonished us jocularly. "What the hell happened?"
Since I was still in response mode, I quietly informed him that Martin Luther King had been killed.
"It's about time somebody shot that SOB," he declared proudly.
I remember wanting to strangle that guy then and there. And Dionne's drummer grabbing him by his tie. Or did he? The rest of that evening became a blur.
That night and the next several days, the country I knew exploded. But it was quiet on the campus of tiny Bethany College where we suffered in silence, most of us not knowing how close we'd come to an impromptu memorial service for the ages.