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I’m 70 years old. Occasionally, I’ll allow my mind to drift back to moments that changed my life and at times shaped history. I especially remember what happened 50 years ago in April 1968.

I was 20. My $13 student discount Delta Airlines flight from St. Louis touched down at the Memphis airport. I was home. It was April 5, 1968. The world, my world, was in chaos. The Tet Offensive recently shattered the myth of victory in a place called Vietnam. Three of my high school classmates had already been killed in the war. Others would follow. In two years my world would change as I, too, would be wearing the olive drab uniform as a draftee of the U.S. Army.

A day before my flight home, April 4, 1968, the world had gotten crazier. A special news bulletin interrupted everything: “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been shot and killed in Memphis.” Hearing the news flashed me back to a rainy November day as I sat in German class at Catholic High School for Boys in Memphis. On that day, the classroom intercom crackled and spoke: “President John F. Kennedy has been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas.”

As my flight rolled up to the gate, the stewardess informed us in a sweet Southern drawl: “Welcome to Memphis. The temperature is 74 degrees. Please be aware that the city of Memphis is under Martial Law. You must be off the streets of Memphis between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. Thank you for flying Delta. Enjoy your stay in Memphis.” I sat for a moment in my seat, stunned. I thought, what next? I didn’t have long to wait. Presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy would be gunned down in California two months later on June 5.

On April 8, I would be a witness to more history as thousands of people marched down Main Street in Memphis. This throng of humanity had taken on a life form of its own, pulsating and heaving from curb to curb like a huge mythological serpent edging its way to a rallying point. The march was led by King’s widow, Coretta Scott King. She was dressed in black, just as Jackie Kennedy was during her bleak trek to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington on a cold day in November 1963. Both the 1963 and the 1968 marches had men in uniform present. But, this Memphis march was different. The soldiers that day were in combat fatigues with fixed bayonets, tense, lining both sides of the street with their trucks and armored personnel carriers parked in the alleys.

A phalanx of five motorcycle officers formed a wedge in front of the marchers to direct them — somewhere. Each officer had a high-powered rifle slung across his back. Three Ford convertibles were sandwiched between the motorcycles and the marchers. Each car carried six officers; three in the front and three in the back. Each helmeted occupant sat at attention with a fresh axe handle positioned between his legs.

American cities elsewhere were on fire. America was burning with frustration and rage. My brain earnestly searched for flashbacks, looking for experiences in my lifetime that might attempt to explain why this was happening. As a little boy in Tennessee, I vividly remember a definitive dual society. Public bathrooms and water fountains were clearly marked “colored” and “white.” Black citizens not only sat in the back of the bus but also were restricted to the balconies of movie theaters. There was much, much more. While a high school sophomore, I sat on a curb waiting for the school bus as a convoy of 105 (I counted them) military vehicles carrying elements of the 101st Airborne headed south to the University of Mississippi to ensure James Meredith had the opportunity to register for class — the first African-American student enrolled at the previously segregated university. President Kennedy and his brother, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, had made Meredith a promise and were determined to keep it. Meredith registered for classes on October 1, 1962. Both Kennedys, as well as Dr. King, would be assassinated by the end of the decade.

In the summer of 1967, I watched the Ku Klux Klan assemble in Memphis’ Overton Park, near my old high school. A Klansman, shrouded all in red, stomped back and forth shouting into a megaphone: “It’s the Catholics and the Jews! It’s the Catholics and the Jews who are responsible for the mess we’re in and for what’s wrong with this country.” He was flanked by a few dozen men in white. Several others were dressed in army uniforms with “KKK” on their shirts and helmets. I thought for a moment of four good Catholic men in my family who put their lives on the line so that this “gentleman” could rant and rave about their religion. My father was at Okinawa in World War II. Uncle Bob was a tail gunner, whose B-29 had to make an emergency landing on Iwo Jima as U.S. Marines fought Japanese troops on the edges of the airfield. Uncle John piloted invasion landing crafts full of Marines and once had to machine gun nine enemy soldiers who were wading through the surf towards his disabled craft. Uncle Charlie made the ultimate sacrifice on a Philippine island named Luzon one month before WWII ended. I walked away from the Klansmen disgusted, angry and outnumbered.

On the way home from the April 8 march, the ironic words of the Delta stewardess came back to me: “Welcome to Memphis ... Thank you for flying Delta. Enjoy your stay.”

I was home and convinced the world had gone insane.

Mike Murray, Ph.D., lives in Makanda Township and is retired from a long career at SIU Carbondale.

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