Posted on Monday 24 March 2014


I always feel an agita as March winds down. In the South, the trees and flowers begin to bloom in spite of periodic cold snaps. And for some of us, the antihistamines and daily checks on the pollen count come before the winter jackets move to the back of the closet. Then I remember why I feel flaky, and the memory actually helps, but always takes me by surprise. In 1968, it was a contentious time in Memphis where I lived – the garbage men went on strike. It was joined by the Civil Rights groups, and one Thursday in March, Dr. King came to town for a protest march which turned into a major riot – and we had martial law, curfews, gunfire was heard from my porch. Most of the violence before had come from white opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, but this one got started by the black militants who opposed MLK’s non-violent approach. However, once underway, everyone got in the act. It was the first march that King had lead that went so badly, and he vowed to return the following Thursday for another – it was to be a testimonial to non-violence.

I was an Intern and spent several days in the ER of the City Hospital treating casualties. Memphis was a wreck by then – garbage collecting at the curbs; people afraid to go out at night; racial tension at a fever pitch; soldiers on the streets; trees and flowers beginning to bloom. The next Thursday, we awoke to 14 inches of snow, and the march was postponed for a week. By the afternoon, the snow melted and the garbage spread down the streets as the runoff headed for the clogged drains. Over the next week, the tension continued to build. You all know what happened then – Martin Luther King was assassinated in the early evening on the eve of the march.

On the day it happened, I had been temporarily promoted and was acting as admitting resident because they had over-scheduled vacations. After dinner, my wife called and told me the news and took off for her brother’s house in a safer part of town. Then came a page to me that the ambulance was headed our way and I was to meet it. Anticipating the headlines, "Intern masquerading as Resident blows it in ER," I mobilized every doctor in the hospital to the ER. As it turned out, MLK was taken to another hospital on the way where a friend pronounced him dead. Then all hell broke loose. I’ve never been to war, but I call those next several days my Viet Nam. The ER was immediately filled with gun-shot people. Except for the wheels of the gurneys, it was silent as more wounded than I could imagine streamed in the doors. The cops were terrified. The patients were terrified. So were we. The floors were slippery with the blood that pored from the gunshot wounds. It went on for days.

I think about those days when people talk about the fog of war. My memories are seen through a vasoline covered lens and I rarely think of it except, like this morning, when I see an early Redbud, feel an unexplained emotional discomfort, and then I remember. I always feel like I’m being melodramatic when I talk about it, but it was real drama – at least as close as I ever get. When we finally went home three days later, we could hear  periodic gunshots, and tank convoys still rolled down our street. We were both committed to and involved in the Civil Rights Movement, but we were so caught up in the surround, and what was happening, that it would be a while before we could even think about the implications of that assassination. My friends who were in Viet Nam said the same thing coming home – they didn’t think about the why of that war while they were in it, only about managing the chaos of the days they were in.

These are not pleasant memories, but every year at about this time, I find myself telling this story to someone, or writing about it. I don’t think there’s a reason exactly. We all have memories of times like that – unpleasant stories, yet ones told repeatedly throughout life. I’ve come to believe that those experiences are a major part of the persons we’ve become, and even though the words can’t really convey the experience, the telling is vital to knowing who we are. Narrative, itself, is a psychotherapy. Thanks for listening…

    Steve Lucas
    March 24, 2014 | 5:19 PM

    Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. Those words are as true today as when spoken and we need to remember the bad times so as to move forward.

    Thank you for remembering and sharing, so that we all do not forget.

    Steve Lucas

    berit bryn jensen
    March 24, 2014 | 7:06 PM

    Thanks for telling…

    March 24, 2014 | 7:53 PM

    I was 7 then and I remember a big sweeping change in our little world, but the most profound thing for me was seeing collective shame in all the grownups around me after news of the Mai Lai Massacre. It was a hard working poor neighborhood in which most people had a family member in Viet Nam.

    Dr. King, Bobby Kennedy, the Tet Offensive. Soldiers coming home forever changed, strung up, and intense like nothing we’d ever seen.

    Manson, the Zodiac killer, cities on fire it seemed, riots. I didn’t understand a whole lot of what was going on but the footage said enough. It was like all hell broke loose. That’s when we all started locking our doors and windows, and stopped leaving keys in the ignitions.

    There’s nothing wrong with telling like it was. Combat is combat.

    March 24, 2014 | 7:54 PM

    strung out

    Oh, and DOA.

    berit bryn jensen
    March 25, 2014 | 6:16 AM

    I’ve never before seen that impressive picture of men with placards telling the world of white supremacists that which many whites refused to acknowledge, reminding me of Primo Levi’s book If this is a man and Ortega y Gasset I am I and my circumstances.
    Racism is manyfaceted, more categories than colours, arbitrarily defined in the service of the master class of day, age and place, freedom and equlity a neverending struggle, I think. .

    berit bryn jensen
    March 25, 2014 | 6:21 AM

    Equality – a basic value too important to stand misspelt.

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