the silence…

Posted on Friday 4 April 2008

I was an Intern at the City of Memphis Hospitals on this day forty years ago. We had a shortage of Residents, and I’d been temporarily promoted to "admitting resident" for the day. I was proud to be asked,  but had spent the day terrified I was going to make some fatal mistake, send someone home who died or create some indelible medical catastrophe. That evening, I was sitting alone pondering the day, glad that both I and the patients had survived, when I got a call from my wife that Dr. King had been shot downtown.

It wasn’t an easy time to be in Memphis. Two weeks before, King had lead a march of striking Garbage Workers downtown. It was his first violent march, and Memphis had turned into a war zone. At the hospital, we’d spent days with the Emergency Room filled with injured rioters and policemen. Tanks had rolled down the street in our neighborhood. There was thick tension in the overburdened hospital between the largely black staff and patients and white doctors. I was literally in the gray zone, being one of the few "liberal" house officers – so I felt alienated in both directions. Complicating that, I was mad at Dr. King. At the time, I felt he’d abandoned the Movement by taking on the War, and Poverty. Not that I didn’t agree with him about those things. I did. But the Movement was still struggling, and I felt that he was solidifying the opposition and being grandiose – taking on way more than we needed. Those were Black Power days, and I saw no good coming from all the rage that had been mobilized that year. It felt like we were becoming like the racists we’d been fighting in the years before.

But that night, I didn’t have time to think about all that, because I got another phone call after talking my wife into going to her brother’s house in a safer part of town. The second call was that Dr. King was in route to the Hospital, and as admitting resident, I was to mobilize a team to receive him. There it was. Finally the terror of the day was coming to a head. "Intern, masquerading as resident blows it." I don’t recall how I did it, but I had every resident of any kind in the hospital assembled in the Emergency Room in a very short time. As things played out, the Ambulance stopped at a private hospital on the way, and Dr. King was pronounced dead by one of my classmates in training there.

Again, there was no time to think, because Memphis went crazy. That night and the next few days were my Viet Nam. We were in the Emergency Room for days. Gurneys were lined up to get into the OR. It met any criteria for the word carnage. The most memorable thing was the silence. The place was filled with shot patients, terrified policemen, doctors, nurses, blood, the smell of mace, and no one spoke except in whispers. There was no time to think about what was happening, and I still don’t know what I would have thought if I’d had time. I know it felt like the end of something. And now, forty years later, I think it was.

I got over my shame for being mad at Dr. King. He was doing his best. I guess I was too. But I don’t think I ever got over the feeling that a lot more died that night than just a single person. Who knows? Maybe it was already dead and I just hadn’t noticed. Maybe that’s what I was mad about in the first place. Or maybe it was just the fanatsy of a young guy approaching thirty that was gone. But I never heard anyone after that talk about non-violence in the way we’d heard it before. The "dream" never felt the same. Two months later, Robert Kennedy was gunned down. Then came the Democratic Convention in August with Yippies chanting "the whole world is watching" as the frightened police attacked the frightened crowd. And in November, Nixon became President. It was all just too much to bear. The country polarized around the war and what seemed like the hope of an earlier time evaporated into confusion and dispair.

Looking back, it still feels like it felt that night in the Emergency Room. It’s not the carnage that lingers. It’s the silence. And when I read what people write about it, or what I write about it, it seems flat – like the important thing is the space between the words. What that night was about can’t really be said…
    April 4, 2008 | 7:15 AM

    As a teenager in High School, I did some volunteering for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.I had to stop when my parents found out because they said it was too dangerous. After HS I went into the convent. I came out on a leave of absence and started working in downtown Newark,NJ with my twin sister. That was about the time of the Newark riots in ’67. We were told by out respective bosses that everybody had to come to work regardless of the riots, my parents had fits about it but we didn’t want to lose our jobs. There was many a night going home that we sat on the bus passing bullet ridden buildings and fires and people standing around with bandages on their heads, arms, etc. People I knew were mad at King and anybody involved in the civil rights organizations because people felt that they were encouraging the rioters. I never felt that was true. A year later when Dr King was killed, I had just finished working overtime and I was coming home later than usual and I heard it announced in the streets of Newark that King was dead. I thought to myself at that moment I was one of only a couple of white people with mostly black people around me at the bus stop in Newark. and I looked to see their reaction and it was one of sorrow not anger. I felt very sad for all of them because I knew that he was a positive influence for all of them and for us too. Years later my Mom was asked by a friend’s son who was in HS and needed to interview someone who had lived during the WW2 and the civil rights movement what he or she thought of Martin Luther King today and she said he was a bad man who caused trouble and a womanizer too. When my 2 sisters and I heard this we almost fell off our chairs. The 3 of us recognized him as a hero then and now. It’s funny how people get to certain opinions in their lives. We did end up telling our Mom how we felt and how their were certain people in Gov’t like J Edgar Hoover how leaked out many lies about Martin Luther King to discredit him.

    April 4, 2008 | 4:06 PM

    Oh good! I was hoping you decided to write about this today:

    April 4, 2008 | 9:45 PM

    I’ve been thinking a lot about rage today. It is so true that silence is as powerful as rage.

    Thank you fro your post. It is a memorable description of an event that affected the world.

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