April 4th was a Thursday that year in what is arguably the single most violent year in the domestic history of the United States after the Civil War. My mother watched the television news in stunned silence that evening, refusing to move or to receive friends in the house. Conventioneers screamed in horror as word was announced towards the close of the agenda. As if suffering from a massive cold of conscience the entire nation held its breath as a fever of riots broke out in more than a hundred cities across the land.
I wasn't even five years old at the time, as oblivious to the events of the outside world as any small child should be while simultaneously enjoying the early fruits of those very same struggles. My family had comfortable housing, there was always food on the table, my sisters and I fought and played with equal fervor and our friends in the neighborhood shared popsicles, frogs and the latest gossip from Romper Room as if nothing else mattered. The world I grew up in was made possible in large measure by the man who died that afternoon and I didn't know his name and surely wasn't too concerned about his passing.
On a road trip through the South that included parts of Florida and rural Georgia I stopped in Atlanta to visit a few days with a cousin of mine new to the area. While she made her home in Little Five Points to the east the major item on the agenda was the neighborhood of "Sweet Auburn" just across the interstate from the State Capitol Building and site of the Martin Luther King Center for Non-Violent Social Change, now simply called "The King Center." My quest was to finally pay homage to the living man who didn't know my name any more than I knew his that dark day in 1968 but who literally gave his life for me just the same.
The complex is situated between the home where Dr. King was born to the east and the original Ebenezer Baptist Church where he and his father both preached. This church would see dual tragedy for the King family as the site of Dr. King's funeral as well as the assassination of his mother while seated at the organ. Across the road and situated well back behind landscaped grounds and artwork is the new and larger facility which also houses a comprehensive Civil Rights Movement exhibit that includes artifacts, photographs, writings and clothing worn by Dr. King during the period.
A bookshop at the complex offered music, books speeches and video footage from the movement but I found it at the time to be somewhat light on its offerings. Offices on both ends complete the complex but clearly the centerpiece is the memorial pool and fountain complex fronting the Freedom Walkway colonnade. In the center of the pool is the small round island that now houses the remains of Mrs. Coretta Scott and Dr. King but for me then was only him. In a moment of sheer beauty as to not be able to look directly upon it and grief overwhelming such as not to look away I gazed upon the white stone crypt at the words uttered by the man in life that so strongly yet peacefully beatify us all in death.
Behind those words lay the man himself. Where an Honor Guard watches over the Unknown Soldier only the shallow water of the pool surrounds the resting place of this great American. A few signs point out the obvious request for respect but the air is so charged with the power of King's vision and presence that not even the most anti-social and unrepentant of haters would dare to wade across to disturb him.
Like so many others around me, I stood at the edge of the pool and bowed my head in prayerful thanks before backing away to the low wall at the edge of the area and.....sat. Personal reflection, atonement, grief, disbelief, joy and contentment washed over me as one might experience at an intense funeral or long-awaited reunion. It was not possible or safe to walk lest I collapse in stride for not allowing every feeling to completely consume and wash over me in its own good time.
Where I have only traveled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been to the mountaintop. I am truly a better man for it.