|Key to the MLK's motel room that night in Memphis.|
We'd just arrived. Long trip. Hadn't planned ahead. We'd just hopped in the Chevy and left because that's what college students did in the Sixties, they just took off to Florida at spring break. We wanted badly to be among 'em.
We'd stopped in the bank before we left to pick up some money, and when the teller asked about what was happening--four guys standing there together getting cash--the guy with the quickest mouth told her we were going to be doing evangelism on Florida beaches. He embellished it too, threw in some hedonism.
It was April, 1968. I was a college sophomore who thought himself already more worldly-wise than most of my righteous peers at the Christian college I attended, but I was looking to become more so by getting lost in the annual orgy of fun way down South. We didn't laugh at the teller until we got out of the bank, but I'll never forget her happy conviction as she counted the bills on the counter between us.
We left the far corner of Iowa on time, but had car trouble in Memphis--a water pump, I think, but all of this was years and years ago. Something went on the blink in that '62 Chev, and we had to stop, had no choice, had to pull over; so we turned in to the next service garage we came to, and were surprised when the boss and the mechanic and the pump jockey were all African-American. We were real white boys, northerners from lily-white homes in lily-white towns. I doubt any of us had ever trusted a black man to fix anything.
But he did, didn't overcharge us either. We spent a couple hours in that garage before we got back on our way south. Me? I was a little surprised the guy didn't take us to the cleaners. It was 1968. In less than a week, Martin Luther King's blood would be spilled on the balcony of a motel not far at all from that gas station.
I'm not sure exactly how it was that we got to Daytona Beach when we did--late. We'd done no planning, had little money; but sometimes innocence doesn't hurt you, even if it should. It was dark outside--that's all I remember; and when we found the sleazy place we did, I do remember thinking it was a dive, an old army Quonset or something, a weird place that likely made money only during spring breaks. TripAdvisor would have told us to stay the heck away, but that night we never second-guessed ourselves because it seemed very clear that finding anything cheaper would have been a stretch.
We stood in line inside a creaky old office, where wiry red neon still read "Vacancy." If this wasn't going to be this place, we knew we'd have to keep looking and night was already upon us. Somewhere along the line we were told that cops didn't take kindly to kids just sleeping on the beach.
The line thinned down until we were second, in front of us a black couple--guy and a girl. I remember great envy, simply assuming these two weren't married. I was in the world that night, in the world.
We acted like we weren't listening, but we were, close enough to hear the chatter between the old guy behind the counter, close enough to hear him tell that couple that the gang right in front of them had just now taken his last room--flipped up his hands, shrugged his shoulders as if there was nothing he could do. He was so sorry but the two of them could probably find another room, he said, just down the street somewhere--he thought there'd be still be a place, but he was full up now and he was sorry.
They left. We lingered, talking among ourselves about what we were going to do. We had no choice really. We'd have to find some place too. We thought we'd ask directions.
"Not to worry," the manager said, "I still got a room. We just don't take their kind."
Truth be told, I knew nothing about lynchings, nothing about Jim Crow, maybe a little about hooded KKK carrying burning crosses. I'd grown up with wonderful Christian people who believed with unquestioned conviction that Martin Luther King was a social agitator with friends who were known communists.
What I'm saying is I'd never seen anything close to what had just happened before my eyes.
We were desperate. We took that last room, the one that seedy old guy in that miserable motel wouldn't give to a couple of customers who happened to black.
I don't know why, but that story returned to me just last night, when I suddenly realized that the way it played out for all these years in my memory was, in part, created by my own naivete. I've always assumed that the couple in front of us left that ramshackle place carrying the same angst we would have: they didn't have a room and it was late and they didn't know what they were going to do because that night there wasn't any room in the inn.
But then, last night, sitting on the couch, listening to Trevor Noah talk about racism, it hit me that I may have judged them by my own lily-white innocence. What if I was wrong. What if they didn't believe the jerk behind the desk, not for a minute? What if they knew why they didn't get a room? What if it wasn't the first time they'd read Jim Crow signs that weren't on the wall but were still strictly enforced? What if they knew the only reason he said what he did was because that cheap dive wouldn't take "their kind." What if they understood very well what had happened? I never considered that before, always simply assumed that couple as innocent as I was.
Even though if I'll never know--call it white privilege--I think I'd be angry, very angry.
On our way back up north from the beaches, somewhere in northern Florida, the car radio told us about the death, the murder, of Dr. Martin Luther King.
And that summer, the streets of just about every city in America went mad. Fires raged.
It was 1968.