April 4th is the 44th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a Thursday evening at 6:00 p.m. in 1968. He was only 39 years old. The point of this blog is not to detail the events surrounding that tragic day or dissect it's historical importance. It is to give you my perspective on my thoughts and circumstances of that day. I hope you find it a different view by someone who was in a rather unique situation.
A little background. I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida in a middle class white family. It was a completely segregated city. Separate water fountains, restrooms, schools, restaurants, etc. “Colored” was the polite term for Africa-Americans. You can probably guess the usual term used. I attended Catholic school from kindergarten through high school. We were the first school in Jacksonville to integrate in 1963 and the first black student was in my homeroom. Still, there were very few minorities of any kind in my social circles but there were blacks everywhere. Part of the scenery. I was a young man fresh out of college in 1968 and starting the work phase of my life. I went from the University of South Florida in Tampa to Atlanta with absolutely no career or life plan. I got a job within a couple of days at the First National Bank of Atlanta working the graveyard shift in the very new Computer Department. I chose that job over teller/branch trainee because it paid 10% more for the night shift. I could use the extra money and I'm a night owl by nature. The job and night shift play a part in this story.
At the time I was living on 12th St. between Peachtree and West Peachtree in the Piedmont/Ga. Tech area. I know, all the streets in Atlanta have Peachtree as part of the name. It was the “Hippie” area and not the safest neighborhood. Who cares, not me. I didn't have a car at the time and took the bus to work. I would walk two blocks and catch the bus right in front of the WTBS, channel 17 studio (the original Ted Turner TV station) on W. Peachtree. It was always dark and usually 10:00 p.m. or later. That bus was coming from Buckhead to downtown. Buckhead is one of the richest sections of Atlanta. The vast majority of the passengers were domestics, cooks, restaurant workers and office cleaning crews. They were also almost 100% black. Being young, naïve and immortal that never crossed my mind. I was the one absolutely white guy in a suit, yes even night shift bankers had to wear suits, among a bus full of hardworking tired folks. After the first week or so, I had a friendly relationship with many of the regulars.
I'm a little fuzzy on some of the details of that day. It was a long time ago, my brain is less than perfect and I didn't realize at the time the importance in our history.
I think I was asleep when the assassination took place. I wasn't due to be at work for four or five hours. One of the managers called and said I needed to come into work an hour or two early. I walked up to the bus stop around 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. It was still dark and the bus was full of the same mix of passengers. There was a very different vibe on the bus. Everyone stared at little whitey in a suit. The driver looked nervous and anxious. I don't think he was thrilled I was getting on the bus. By then, I knew MLK had been shot but being stupid I figured the cold and piercing stares were because I'd caught an earlier bus. No familiar faces. That bus route went to or near Peachtree and Marietta streets in downtown Atlanta. That's where many of the north/south and east/west bus lines met. All night the area was full of hundreds of people changing buses. I had to walk about a block to get to the night entrance of the bank. There was a discernible buzz in the air. Not the most comfortable walk to work but still no fear. The First National Bank of Atlanta was at 2 Peachtree St.
Once inside I realized something serious was going on. There were several armed guards in the lobby (usually only one). They had the doors and elevators guarded. When I got off the elevator on the 4th floor there was a guard and another by the computer room door. There were actual day shift managers still there. The swing shift guys had been busy making backups of everything. Tapes, disks, punch cards, documentation, and printouts were stacked up everywhere. The plan was to take all the backups to an offsite vault in the north Georgia mountains that the bank had. I think the money vault guys were doing the same thing. A riot was fully expected. Sometime after midnight we were pretty much caught up and the backups were on the way. My boss (about a year older than me) and I decided to see what was happening in Atlanta. No, we didn't go back out on Peachtree, we went up to a vacant floor in the very new FNB Atlanta tower. I think we went to the 38th floor, the building was 41 or 42 floors. The 38th floor was vacant except for a few metal studs and the elevators. We had a 360 degree view of Atlanta. The area around the bank was pretty quiet but we could look east and see the neighborhood around Ebenezer Baptist Church (Sweet Auburn), MLK's home church. By then we were a little more nervous but we were also beginning to realize that maybe we were witnessing something important and historical. Some cities had riots, looting or at least disturbances and demonstrations. Surely MLK's home city and base would erupt. We could tell that there was activity in Sweet Auburn. Everything was lit up. Amazingly there was no looting or torching in Atlanta. We made it through the night. I rode the bus home late Friday morning. The bus and downtown were very empty. None of my normal fellow passengers going to work in Buckhead. I had to go to work on the bus Friday night. Not many passengers again. We usually finished Friday nights at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. No rush to head home in the middle of the night. I did a little extra work and then had breakfast at the almost empty Krystal (scrambled eggs, sausage, grits and toast – all greasy, all delicious). It took a few days after MLK's funeral, but life got back to normal. The backups returned from the mountain vault, the folks on the late bus to downtown talked with me and we got back to one guard in the bank lobby.
I think the fact that Atlanta didn't erupt, with a very valid reason to do so, had a profound effect on me. A very hurt and oppressed segment of society didn't take it out on an easy target when I was in harm's way that night. The bus rides were great experiences too. I met some wonderful people. The events of 4/4/68 changed my views on race relations, they got me to think about it. Since then I've tried to be much more empathetic to all. Sometimes I succeed. If it's how you were born (black, brown, bald, Asian, gay, poor, male or female, challenged, ill, short...) I'm on your side. If it's something under your control (or perceived control) I'm not yet perfectly accepting. Still working on that.
MLK had a profound effect on my life. Some of it from personal experiences in 1968 and some from his efforts, writings, speeches, and philosophy. A couple of others did too. John, Martin & Bobby all gone. It was a very rough decade. If you don't know who or what I mean, shame on you. Sad I had to live through this but glad I did. Maybe a little better person for it.