I know how it feels in my hand. I know how it opens and shuts, I know how to set it. I know how compactly it folds up. I'm not sure why, but years and years ago, when I was a boy, a clock just like this ended up somehow in my possession, even though I didn't buy it or use it myself. I just remember it very, very well. When I spotted it, I recognized myself in it, long ago.
This one belonged to Dr. Martin Luther King, and it was his possession that day in Memphis when he walked out on the balcony of the motel where he was staying and was shot dead by a white man named James Earl Ray, who, with that bullet, made some white folks very happy and millions of black folks weep.
For someone my age, stunning familiarity stares at you when you're at the Martin Luther King National Site. This little travel alarm could have been mine, but this one was there in his motel room that night, standing on a table beside a bed he never slept in.
There was no choir loft in the church where I grew up, and no baptistry, but otherwise Ebenezer Baptist, the church he attended as a boy and where he preached as a clergyman isn't unlike the church I remember, front-and-center an oak communion table with "This Do. . ." carved beckoningly into the top, three throne-like chairs standing guard behind a single pulpit in the middle of the stage up front. It's not unfamiliar, even when you sit in a pew and imagine his family filing in.
I didn't grow up in the middle of a major American city like Dr. King, so the streets where he lived and the house he called home don't look much like mine and ours. But that doesn't mean there isn't a species of familiarity here either, a middle-class African-American section of Atlanta.
It's still a wonder to stand out front on the street here, where a dozen or more old houses are being restored, and to think that once upon a time that little King boy was here, a kid who, with his neighborhood buddies, used to play in the fire station across the street.
Where am I in this picture? For someone whose memory holds at least some of the story told in Dr. King's boyhood neighborhood, that question is not easy to answer. Who are my people? What did those I loved at the time see when they looked at this image a half century ago? Where did they stand? Why? It's easy to know how MLK got into this picture, but how did it happen exactly that we didn't?
Perhaps the most searing images are not photographs but words to move hearts and minds and souls, words no less difficult today than they were in 1968.