In Brief—The author’s reminiscences of the night of April 5, 1968, the night after the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray.
It Wasn’t a Dark and Stormy Night—
There was remarkably little traffic on the streets that night. They were unusually quiet for a spring Friday evening in early April. No cruising and celebrating the weekend. Just an eerie absence of cars.
I was a white law student in a white Porsche, nicely dressed in suit and tie. I was on my way to the Sheriff’s substation for a night ride-along in the back of a sheriff’s department squad car with two deputies who were going to show me what an evening was like in the black ghetto where they worked.
But this wasn’t just another Friday night. It was the night after the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, the evening before. There was a sense of expectancy in the air. We all felt it.
I was in my second year of law school and had signed up for this ride-along earlier in the year little knowing what lay in the future.
I parked under the brightest light I could find in the station parking lot. The two deputies who would show me their section of town were two of the biggest, hardest men I’d ever met. Crew cuts and starched military-looking uniforms gave them an aura of “don’t screw with me” toughness. The pistols and equipment that hung at their waists emphasized that seriousness. The Southern accent of the bigger of the two hinted at what I would later see.
One of our first stops was a bar/pool hall filled with smoke and the click of balls. The moment we entered, a silence descended. You could have cut it with a knife. Nothing moved. Not a word was spoken. The hostility of both the customers and the deputies was apparent. I was glad to be accompanied by two imposing-looking deputies. I thought to myself that I hoped the customers believed I was a detective. Or maybe they saw me as a scared law student in the company of “The Man.” They probably saw only the two armed deputies.
The deputies swaggered slowly through the quiet room, exiting through the back door into the alley. I felt a sense of relief.
We cruised the streets slowly. It was unnaturally calm. Little traffic and few people. It was almost eerie. At one point, one of the deputies apologized for the absence of the action they usually encountered.
As I was to learn, that was not the case in other cities across the country. The rage had erupted and took several days to subside. Los Angeles officials had met with representatives of the black community and defused the anger. It simmered, but it didn’t boil over.
A call over the radio led us to the aftermath of a fight in a nearby neighborhood. At the scene, one of the apartments was missing the large front window. A drunken man, bleeding profusely, wandered about the front yard. Obviously, he had gone through the window. Maybe he had been pushed. Witnesses weren’t sure.
The deputies handled the situation, but the cut victim had suffered severe cuts. They talked to the bleeding man as if he were a child, calling him “Boy” although he appeared to be a mature man of middle years. They put him in the back seat beside me. It’s probably a good thing he was so drunk because he seemed relatively numb despite his injuries. Though my memory is vague now, I recall that an ambulance arrived, the victim was loaded in the back and it drove off.
Because it was so quiet, I was released just after midnight. The trip home through silent streets lifted my anxiety at being in the heart of the ghetto on the night after Martin Luther King’s assassination. But the experience left a mark on me, a strong impression and a measure of understanding that I carry to this day.
A quiet night in April, 1968.