Fifty years have passed since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was young, but the anxiety and upset of that time have been seared into memory, influencing me in so many ways. My father remembered 1968 as a time of near anarchy when society was splitting apart over the coming election, the Vietnam War, racial issues, and civil rights.
Let me set the stage. We moved to Washington, D.C., because my father was offered a job as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. We lived in the Southwest quadrant of the city, then called “New Southwest.” Before the 1960s, this part of town had become rundown and impoverished, thus making it a target for urban renewal. The mainly black residents were displaced to other parts of the city, homes and buildings razed, and thus began a great experiment.
The new brutalist concrete, glass, and aluminum-trimmed apartments and townhomes became populated by mostly white, young professionals and families who had also moved to Washington, either as part of the government or in support of the growing government-centric economy. Delaware Avenue separated us from the remaining housing projects, a world very different from mine.
There were three elementary schools within only a mile or so of each other. Syphax and Bowen served the children in the projects to the east of us. Amidon served New Southwest. The racial divides between the three were starkly obvious. Recognizing the need to remedy this inequity, my father and some others convinced the school board to pool resources and Tri-School was born: 1st and 2nd grade in Syphax, 3rd and 4th grade in Amidon, and 5th and 6th in Bowen.
The plan was for black and white children to learn together and for black and white teachers to learn from each other. Some white parents, however, soon pulled their children out of public school or moved away. By the time I was in 4th grade, I was one of only a few white children in my classroom.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on the evening of April 4th. On April 5th, we went to school as usual, but then the city erupted in violence and fire. At some point during the day, our teacher, Evelyn Smith, pulled us all into a close circle around her and told us that Dr. King had been killed. She then gently told us that school was closing and we were to go home for our safety because people were angry. There were tears and nervous chattering.
She then said that all the white students were going to be driven home by the teachers because blacks were very angry at whites. My friend Malcolm, the wisecracking goofball of the class and a resident of the neighboring projects, swaggered over and said, “That’s all right, Mrs. Smith, I’ll walk ‘Lizabeth home–I gotta knife!” after which he quickly whipped it out of his pocket. Not missing a beat, Mrs. Smith replied, “Umm, that’s OK, Malcolm, we’ll take her home.” It was not a time for admonishment.
At home, my brother and I watched the city burn from his third-floor bedroom. It was fascinating and frightening all at once. Our family did not own a car back then, but later that day we were whisked out of the house by a friend who drove us to his home in Bowie. As we traveled out of the city eastward to the suburbs, we could see the fires and smoke rising to the west.
Thinking back to that time, it occurred to me that the lives of the black children were in just as much danger as those of the white kids on that awful day, if not more so. Some had to walk several blocks toward burning neighborhoods, by themselves. Some probably had no parent at home waiting for them. Being that young, they were not prepared to protect themselves from the rioting.
The following month, the Poor People’s Campaign set up Resurrection City, populated by thousands of poor Southern blacks who came to Washington to lobby for their economic rights–better jobs, higher wages, safer communities. It rained constantly for weeks that spring, and the encampment became flooded and mired in mud. Despite the conditions, my father insisted that we go and visit with the poor; it was important to him that I witnessed this moment in history.
In the years that followed, we white kids endured backlashes from the project kids. I was mugged once and had my glasses stolen, a gang of boys threw rocks at our house one evening, and one afternoon I was chased home by a large group of kids who began screaming at me “Hey, white girl!” after I was caught walking home alone. I learned to run fast that year.
We had a tall peach tree in the back patio. Every spring, the project kids would raid it in plain sight, climbing the tree and stealing almost all of the ripe fruit. “Forget about it,” my father said, “they need it more than we do.” After four years, we, too, moved away.
I’ve wondered about my classmates over the years, hoping they survived being poor and black and going on to much better lives than the ones they endured as children. The Black Lives Matter and Showing Up For Racial Justice movements have brought my past experience into even sharper focus. Despite my upbringing in a household where fighting for social justice was modeled every day while I was a child, I still have never understood what it is like to be black. Despite the hard work of the civil rights movement, some things have not changed.
I have taken my whiteness for granted. I have never had to worry about how to act in the presence of police. I’ve never been watched carefully as I browse for items in a store. I’ve never been ignored while trying to order a meal. I can’t imagine moving about in the world ever mindful that someone might decide that I looked suspicious or that I didn’t belong there–isn’t that what living under an authoritarian regime is like?