Where were you when...? It's hard to believe it's been 45 years since Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Newly graduated, I was at my desk at Saks Fifth Avenue as that fashion industry icon's first Black executive trainee.
Yes. I relate to Dr. King.
I met him as a 10-year-old at New York's Riverside Church. Since my aunt was a member of the church's professional choir, I had a front row seat when Dr. King came to town. There, on the receiving line, he lifted my awestruck chin and called me "pretty."
"And what are you doing for our people?" he asked. I told him my cousin and I and two others had desegregated New York City's schools. He told me that what I was doing was "important." Growing up a child of the Integration Generation, at a time when "pretty" and "important" were about as good as a Negro girl could hope to feel, you could say I was "raised" by Dr. King.
The next day as my mother brushed my hair for school, I saw a different me in the mirror. At age 8, northern, white parents had spat on me and torn my clothes for trespassing what they saw as their "turf" and I saw as school. Now, touched by King, I felt cleansed.
Yes. I was a child "raised" by Dr. King.
I was at the March on Washington in 1963 when he waved his arm out over the crowd, his back to Lincoln, his eyes fixed on horizons far distant; his voice invoking redemption for still-desperate times.
On the night of his assassination, seated in the glove department of Saks, I took the gloves off -- a footsoldier for freedom -- and re-enlisted in his name.
The next day, sad but proud, I went to work dressed for mourning in winter white: shoes, designer dress, purse, rabbit fur coat. Past the smoldering soot of riot-torn New York, I arrived for work. Naïve, I was a walking target for the police.
They dragged me toward the gutter yelling "The coat! Whose is it? Where'd you steal that?" Branding me a looter, they acted-out their scene; seizing my handbag, rifling through my wallet.
"Match my license to the monogram in my lining," I tried.
"Smart one, huh," came the retort as they cuffed my hands behind my back.
A white colleague whisked by me, unaware, with a casual "Hi, Janus!" I pled my case: "See, he knows me." I wanted to say, "I belong here," but they were determined otherwise.
Dragging me to the elevator and up to Personnel -- more for sadistic amusement than for ID -- they set me loose, but they hardly set me free. I was a Black girl in fashion, but not in vogue.
Where were you when...?
Much will be said on this day about how Dr. King died. But, it is the speech he delivered on April 4, 1967, that exemplifies how he lived -- and why his life and time remain relevant to ours.
Then, as now, it was a time of war. It was Easter time; the season of crucifixion and resurrection. Returning to the Riverside Church, Dr. King invoked his testament: "There comes a time comes when silence is betrayal."
As I have walked among desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that rifles would not solve their problems... But they asked -- and rightly so -- what about [the war]? Wasn't our own nation using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted?
I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government.
Quoting Buddhist Vietnamese leaders, he went on: "Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat... History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued a self-defeating path of hate..."
"We still have a choice today," said Dr. King, "nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation."
On this day decades laterm we will celebrate what has changed -- the most visible difference being our first African-American president.
But, in these tough-talk days of "stand your ground," we must also confront what remains unchanged.
Forty-five years post-King, the NYPD that endangered and humiliated this woman as a girl is defending its indefensible policy of "stop and frisk." We are fighting wars that will never problem-solve. The poorer are getting poorer and more numerous. People are angry, disenchanted and too often violent. Even as guns rip the bodies of ever-younger targets, the cynical among us -- long on hate and short on imagination -- tout violence (guns) as the solution.
On April 4, 1968, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate dubbed "the most dangerous man in America" by FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover died. His message lives on.
Historian and social commentator, Janus Adams is the author of "Freedom Days," a history of the Civil Rights years and publisher of BackPax children's media. (www.JanusAdams.com)
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To read the full text of Dr. King's speech, click here.