By Maria Saporta
MEMPHIS – For 50 years, I had little desire to travel to Memphis.
The city always triggered one of the most painful memories of my youth – the assassination of an idol who had become a friend – Martin Luther King Jr.
I have often said my life peaked when I was 11. It was September, 1966 when I became close friends with Yolanda King, who had helped integrate my elementary school – Spring Street – along with the children of Juanita and Ralph David Abernathy.
It was through Yoki, as we affectionately called her in those days, that I met her father – one of the most charismatic people I had ever met. I remember spending several Saturday nights at their house on Sunset Avenue and then going with them to Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sunday mornings to hear King preach.
I was deeply drawn to King’s messages of civil rights, nonviolence – especially his opposition to t the Vietnam War as well as his growing emphasis to help the plight of the poor.
That’s how he ended up in Memphis. King and his lieutenants made several trips to Memphis in March and April of 1968 to support sanitation workers who had gone on strike.
And on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated while staying at the Lorraine Hotel, on the southern edge of downtown Memphis.
For years, a dear friend has wanted to take me to Memphis to visit the Lorraine Hotel, which has been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum.
We finally decided that we needed to do the trip before the 50th anniversary of King’s death.
So that’s how I ended up spending this past weekend in Memphis – a city that I have unfairly painted with a broad brush of King’s assassination.
During our trip to Memphis, we visited the historic Peabody Hotel (I had no idea that such a magnificent hotel existed in downtown Memphis), went to the famous Rendevous place, walked along Beale Street – a place alive with neon and music honoring some of the greatest blues and rock-’n’-roll artists ever to grace our nation.
Immediately I realized how one-dimensional my view of Memphis has been over the past five decades.
Sunday morning we went to the Mason Temple – the site of where King gave his final “Mountaintop” speech – one that eerily seemed to foreshadow his death the next day.
On the drive from Atlanta to Memphis, we had listened to the entire speech – an unplanned, powerful performance that he had delivered without notes. He spoke of a nation hungry for economic justice – urging blacks to seize their own economic power by supporting black businesses.
A fence surrounded the Mason Temple, now the national headquarters of Church of God through Christ, so we were not able to enter the hall.
Later we headed to the Lorraine Motel and the civil rights museum. During the tour of the museum, we followed the footsteps of African-Americans forced migration as slaves and the journey of the Civil Rights movement – ending up outside Rooms 306 and 307 – where King and his entourage were staying on April 4. We were able to look outside the window to the balcony where King was shot – extinguishing one of the brightest voices of the 20th Century.
I was 12 when King was assassinated. I remember the biting pain I felt that evening when he died. Sadness cast a spell over my entire family – parents and my sister – who had all gotten to know and love King and his family through my friendship with Yoki.
At the time, we were living at the Burge Apartments – a Georgia Tech high rise for married students and faculty on North Avenue. We decided to go out to dinner because my mother didn’t feel like cooking.
On our way out, we ran into a professor who lived in our same building. I had always thought he was a friendly, good man. But that night, he was partying with a group of friends. “We are going out to celebrate,” he yelled over to us.
That’s when it really hit me. How could anyone celebrate the death of another human being – much less the death of a noble King who had preached for peace and respect for his fellow man?
The pain of that day has never stopped hurting. I was blessed with the gift of knowing King – not only as a legendary national and international leader – but as a warm, fun-loving family man. I was lucky enough to have experienced his magnetism first hand – to have been present to hear his wisdom well beyond his 39 years.
King’s death left a hole in my heart that will never be filled.
On the night before his death, King spoke of the future.
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
King may have been to the mountaintop. But we as a people are still lost – wandering through the valleys of our lives.
At least when King delivered his last speech, he was at peace.
Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.”
Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.
Fifty years later, the trip to Memphis brought it all home for me.
We’re still waiting for the stars to light our way to King’s mountaintop.
A wonderful article, Maria! Gave me a chance to ‘see’ Memphis and Dr. King through your eyes!
Great article, I could hear his voice while reading that last speech…..which I have heard many times.
My heart is touched by your reflections of a humble servant, the legacy of his life and family and the power of love within all of us. Thanks!
Nice piece Maria. I was living in New Jersey with my parents when we got the awful news of King’s death. It shocked us all.
Maria, thank you for this article. Where was the Spring Street School exactly? its been a while since we talked.
It is now the Center for Puppetry Arts.
I greatly appreciate this article. I remember that night so vividly. The night was to be the grand opening of my Dad’s new venture, the Mini Cinemas (this first one at Peachtree Battle Shopping Center in Atlanta). They rented bright lights to shine into the sky to excite all, but the lights at Peachtree Battle didn’t shine that night as everything seemed so dark. Instead, my parents cried and we sat glued to the TV. I remember that my father locked our front door for the first time ever that night.
A few years before, my Dad took me out on a “date” to downtown Atlanta for dinner at the Regency. Each daughter got a dress up night with Dad every six months and it was a huge deal. I must have been 8 or 9 years old. At dinner, my Dad fell silent (a very, very rare thing for Bob Gentry). I looked over to see what or who had awed him. To be perfectly honest, my initial reaction was shock because I had never seen a black man sitting in a restaurant before. But, then, as I looked closely I recognized Dr. King. I was not particularly aware at 8 or 9, but I did know who the man was and I did know that my parents honored him and his work. The memory is vivid. I even remember him cutting his meal and eating. It is like a movie in my mind.
A few years later Dr. Kings parents used to visit us at Westminster. I remember sitting at The Reverend Sr.’s feet while he told us stories and of listening to Mrs. King play the piano. Ours (the Class of 1972) was the first to be integrated at the school. It seems like light years ago.
It seems that I must surely be 95 years old to remember a time so long gone. But, there are far too many bad aspects of those days that remain until this one. The March for Our Lives on Saturday made me feel that perhaps, just perhaps, this new generation will be the ones to finally put humanity before politics and profits and to – with great empathy – bring Dr. King’s vision to our world.
Great article – not only does it provide a lot of perspective on Memphis (which I believe is a great American city in terms of culture), but shows your roots and how you grew up to be the writer you became.
Great article! The statement, or even thought could never be more true…”How could anyone celebrate the death of another human being – much less the death of a noble King who had preached for peace and respect for his fellow man?” So little, have we changed- as a people and as a country!
Your article really touched me emotionally especially about being reluctant to visit the Lorraine Hotel. I met Yoki in New York at the Democratic Convention which nominated Pres. Jimmy Carter. From that moment on we became very close friends. Dr. King and my dad were very close; in fact it was mentioned in the AJC article Sunday that he went to Acapulco which was my father’s villa because he was so tired and depressed. My dad said Dr. King told him in February of 1968 that he was not going to live to see his 40th birthday which really upset my dad. Yoki said the family was sitting around the dinner table and he joked about dying which she told him it was not funny. The Civil Rights Movement under his leadership was losing momentum. I celebrate Dr. King’s life but the anniversary of his death especially the “Mountain Top” speech and the sudden passing of Yoki still affects me deeply. Your article took me back in time but added new perspectives. However I still cannot bring myself to visit the Lorraine Hotel. Keep up the great work.
You too have a great story. In reading Tavis Smiley’s book – Death of a King – you could feel that he knew his days were limited. Thank you for letting me know that we have shared a common love for Yolanda. She too was taken away from us at way too early an age. I can hear her in your reply. She cut me short one time. We had gone on an anti-war march (her father was still living), and I boasted to some folks we were walking with that she was the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. She pulled me aside and asked me not to advertise who she was. To this day, I still feel bad that I wasn’t more sensitive to what it must have been like to be her father’s daughter. I never did that again. A lesson that I learned when I was either 11 or 12 years old.
If we ever have the opportunity to meet or speak there are so many great stories to share of our beloved friend Yoki. By the way the first time Dr. King called our house when I was about 12, thought it was a hoax and hung up on him. My father called back to advise me that Dr. King was calling to say hello to my mom. LOL
Maria, thank you for using your Gift to give us, your readers, a gift. I, too, believe the Promised Land is coming. It may be here, already. We’re just in the way of its promise.
I, too, appreciate your candor and story.,
What a wonderful and honest testimony of a great man and the lasting effect he had on your life.
Juan Guillermo, muchas gracias. Espero que todo esta mejor para ti. A la proxima semana. Maria
Very nice column, Maria. I remember you talking about this. Twenty years later, I still miss being your editor. 🙂
We had a great run together. Miss those days as well. But the good news is that we’re still in the game. Hope you and your family are doing well. By the way, you’ll have a pretty good birthday this year: 08-18-18….
Indeed I will! It’s the big 60. Take care.
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