When I found out that Martin Luther King had been assassinated, I was heading for spring break in Florida. We left in the evening, not long after hearing the news, and drove through the night. We reached the outskirts Atlanta in the early morning. Nearing the city, we began to see black people gathered on the overpasses. Dozens and dozens of them. Just standing there.
The radio had been on all night, and I had drifted in and out of sleep to the sound of voices reporting on the violence that was breaking out in cities everywhere in the aftermath of the killing. It scared me a little to look up and see all those people. Why were they there?
Soon we passed a directional sign for the Atlanta airport—and almost instanteously, I saw a black hearse coming toward us on the other side of the interstate. Then I understood. The people were there to witness King’s coming home.
The image was seared into my brain: the somber people on the overpasses, the hearse coming toward us in slow motion, passing—like history itself passing us by. Can it be possible that I actually caught a glimpse of Coretta King, dressed in black, her head bent? It seems unlikely, but I swear I did.
We drove on to Florida, spent our few days in the sun. But I couldn’t get that image out of my mind. It still seems as real to me today as it did then, but as time goes by, it seems more a message than a memory. A reminder that we are history happening. All of us. History is made by what we do individually and as a nation—what by what we don’t have the courage to do.
We are responsible.