Remembering Days of Daisies and Death

On the Fortieth Anniversary Of a Memphis Killing

What is the color of nostalgia? I’m old enough to remember a past through a classically clouded sepia haze, but I’m also young enough to see the past through a shower of pop art daisies.

Remembering the times when daisies were on everything from black-light posters to bell-bottoms to that spot of smooth skin between Goldie Hawn’s belly button and bikini line (sock-it-to-me), it sounds like a time of love – of innocence and joyful self expression. In some ways, it was.

“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say.”

But mixed into that psychedelic rainstorm and brainstorm is the bloody shadow of cut roses that are doomed before they ever open their petals to the world.

“Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards— that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.”

It may be that we bundle roses into bouquets, when they’ve only just started to smell and barely to flower, to indicate that there is a greater beauty in our relationships and in our lives that awaits joyful discovery even as the fragrant petals await their time to smile.

“I’d like somebody to mention that day that
Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life
serving others.

“I’d like for somebody to say that day that
Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.”

But when cut roses fall onto the coffins of the dead, it means something else. It represents the unfulfilled potential of a life abridged, an abrupt end to discovery’s trajectory.

“I want you to say that day that I tried to be
right on the war question.

“I want you to be able to say that day that I
did try to feed the hungry.

“And I want you to be able to say that day
that I did try in my life to clothe those who
were naked.”

It is these dying roses that fall like hailstones through the bright mist of a 1968 daisy shower. They are the shrapnel in the flower power explosion. Anyone who remembers that April day remembers the scars it left on our hopes, the holes it tore in our dreams: disbelief; distrust; and a toxic infection that – by the end of June – turned most activists into apathetic cynics.

“I want you to say on that day that I did try
in my life to visit those who were in prison.

“I want you to say that I tried to love and
serve humanity.”

But I don’t mean to categorize April 4, 1968 as just another element in the concept we call “The Sixties,” or even to lump it into the multi faceted maelstrom of that one, tragic year. I want to call that day what it was – it was the day the drum major died.

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major,
say that I was a drum major for justice.
Say that I was a drum major for peace.
I was a drum major for righteousness.
And all of the other shallow things will not matter.
I won’t have any money to leave behind.
I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life
to leave behind. But I just want to leave a
committed life behind.”

From Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Drum Major Instinct” speech,
delivered February 4, 1968 at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia

The child I was then is only a small part of the man I am now. Remembering that day, in the carpool, when Mrs. Pazol told us that Martin Luther King had been assassinated, I wonder how much I really understood of the man. Indeed, I am lucky that I live in a city that considers itself not only his birthplace but also the guardian of his legacy. When Atlanta finally allowed itself to breathe, the years that followed had a momentum that was unstoppable. Achievement and equal opportunity have been growing here since then, despite the rednecks in their white sheets.

But no one thinks the words “We Shall Overcome” are passe, ready to be retired. Even if Senator Obama captures the Presidency, that ends nothing. The past month of “their church vs. our church,” “their pastor vs. our pastor” shows that not only is there still a feeling of disconnectedness in the African American community, but there is also a white racist behind every tree ready to spring a backlash onto the conversation.

Senator Obama’s ascendancy, however high it goes, is good for the country. It’s good for “White” America and it’s good for “Black” America. Even the disturbing overtones in the public debate in March are good because we can see how much farther we actually have to go to see equality from every racial perspective, which is one of the main points of Sen. Obama’s speech on race.

One thing is clear: in a country where our Founding Fathers were proud to declare e pluribus unum – out of many, one – there can never be equality without generosity; there can never be freedom without a voice; there can never be unity without understanding; there can never be an “us” as long as there is a “them.”

When the time finally comes to stop singing “We Shall Overcome,” no one will remember why we even sang it to begin with. Until then, we all must sing it, because if not for keeping our eyes on that distant time, we would be forever still, lying in our own blood on the cold, concrete balcony of a Memphis motel.


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