This weekend as we approach the Martin Luther King Holiday, those haunting words penned by Dick Holler and plaintively sung by Dion, keep running through my head; “Has anybody here, seen my old friend Martin - Can you tell me where he's gone? He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good die young. But I just looked around and he's gone.” It happens every year!
1968 was a turbulent year in the history of the USA. On April 4th, Martin Luther King, Jr. was felled by a bullet from a gunman at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee then, just 68 days later, on June 6th, Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. So much has been written about their causes, and the changes their lives and deaths have brought to this country. But this is a personal blog, about the things I have experienced. So here goes.
When Martin was shot in Memphis, the south was in the throes of the civil rights movement and there was unease across the land. Sporadic race riots had broken out and everyone was uneasy. There was restlessness in the ranks on both sides. And a lot of us were caught in the middle. I remember sitting down with one of my fellow DJs at WCOS, the first black DJ hired at a predominately white radio station in the city. He was coming on the air just as I was getting off at 1 AM, and aside from us, the studios were deserted. So it was a good time for a one on one conversation. We were amazed to find that we shared the same feelings, sadness about what had happened and concern about where our country was going. Like most young people in the south we were struggling to find ways to cross the bridge and find ways to get along.
However, the world was changing around us. Racial tensions in the city were building and there was fear that we could soon see trouble here. Our city fathers took action that forever changed the culture of the city; they declared a dusk to dawn curfew. For those of us who had to be out in the city at night to get to and from our jobs, the police department issued identification cards. So I was able to drive around at night. Immediately I could see that things were different. On many streets, I would be the only car moving. After being stopped several times that first week by to police to check my identification, the street cops became familiar with my lime green Plymouth and would wave at me as I passed by.
Most of the businesses that were open in the evening now closed down at dusk and that reduced traffic on the streets even more. The biggest impact to me was not driving to work in the evening but where I was driving to work. At the time the curfew was imposed, my radio show was broadcast from Doug Broome’s Drive in on Two Notch Road. We had moved there from the Main and Confederate location just a couple of years before. It made no sense to continue the show from an empty restaurant so we moved back to the main studios at the Cornell Arms Building next to the University and the State House. That way, the audience could at least call in their requests and dedications and I would have the protection of an armed security guard.
When the curfew ended, the show returned to the remote location at Doug’s for a few weeks but the kids did not return. By this time, parental concerns were high and the high school kids were kept close to home, rightly or wrongly, the streets were not considered safe anymore. So we returned to the studio again. This meant that after my show, Mike Rast, the evening news announcer and I had to drive out to Doug’s on Main to pick up their payment for that night’s show and return to the studio and push it under the accountant’s door before I drove Mike home. As we drove the twenty blocks to the restaurant and back to the studio, we commented to each other about how empty the streets remained in the late evening. As it turned out the kids never returned to cruising the streets between the drive in restaurants, visiting the DJs, requesting songs and making dedications the way they did before. The “Happy Days” experience was gone. And something really neat about being a teenager in the 50s and 60s was forever wiped from the American experience. Oh MY!