When Martin Luther King was murdered, I was in basic training in Ft. Ord, California. My company was made up all of reservists. We were, to my memory, all white, and almost all from St. Louis, from Dallas, and from Cajun country, in and around Lafayette, Louisiana. There were a few exceptions; I remember one guy from Jonesboro, Arkansas. Our drill sergeant was also from Jonesboro. Our drill sergeant, a very nice guy (perhaps an exception for drill sergeants), was an African American, while my basic training cohort was white. They didn’t know each other, but, as it turned out, someone in the sergeant’s family (his father, maybe?), worked at his trainee’s grandmother’s house, in some menial capacity. The two of them got along well; neither seemed to let the difference in home-town status affect their relationship. I was impressed.
As I remember it, the entire company (and perhaps others) was on a rifle range, our first (and only?) night time firing exercise. We were lined up (as if getting ready for a cavalry charge, or practicing at a driving range), looking at our targets. It was a beautiful night. I think it was just about twilight, when the instructor stopped his regular repartee, and announced that there was some important news, that Martin Luther King had been shot and killed in Memphis.
This was quite a shock. I had thought the JFK assassination was a once in a lifetime event. I was not quite sure how to react.
Some of my basic training comrades had no such problem however. No sooner had the announcement been made, than a loud cheer rang out from a minority, but a vocal minority. This was even more of shock, I think. Even the trainer on the PA system was shocked, as I recall, as a short lecture came blaring out of the speakers.
I don’t remember what happened then, whether we continued the rifle training or not. I do remember wondering who had done the cheering at the assassination news.
A day or so later, I was speaking with one of the Lafayette guys. He and I were pretty friendly (I was friendly with everybody, more or less, something that was very interesting to me, because this was the first time that I had been thrown in with so many different types of people, and positioned at the bottom of the social ladder). But I was a law school graduate, and he spent his days pumping gas in Louisiana. I asked him about the cheering. I knew he was not a participant, but he told me that it did not surprise him at all. That where he was from, it seemed like the majority of people (white) wished Martin Luther King dead. That included my friend’s mother, who had just sent him a letter, praising the assassination.
What does all this mean? I don’t know really what it meant in 1968, or what it means in 2008. It strikes me as inconceivable. But so many other things do, as well.