A Memoir in Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Share Your Own Memories Of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This article celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by sharing a personal story related to nursing.

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Share Your Own Memories Of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Shared by: Rev. Caryl Griffin Russell, MSN, BSN, MDiv

January 17, 2022

Celebrating a life-changing day, I share an experience of speaking to graduates at an assembly of an all-Black high school in South Memphis a few months after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in this city of great unrest and violence.

As a one-year graduate registered nurse at Methodist Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, 22 years old, I receive a call from my Black obstetrics and gynecology (OB) instructor from college inviting me to speak at a graduation ceremony of an all-Black high school in South Memphis.  She will accompany me.  My instructions are to speak to inspire the students into their futures.  I remember the experience like it was yesterday.  It may not have changed them, yet it has forever changed me.

It was late morning when my black OB Instructor led me into a long, dim hallway with high windows along one wall.  An uneasy feeling accompanied me as I stepped into a world beyond my comprehension.  The past week I wondered what I could possibly say to Black students whose lives I knew nothing about?  What were their fears?  Their hopes? Their possibilities?  My instructor assured me I would have the words.  “Just inspire them to go further,” she said.  Why me?  What do I have to give them? I wondered.  Now, here I was in the deserted hallway accompanied only by the tap, tap, tap of my instructor’s heels and the faint squeak of my nursing duty-shoes as we walked together down the long hallway.  My instructor had asked me to wear my white nursing uniform to speak.  My white dress?  My white shoes?  My white hose?  “Yes,” she said, “and your white nursing cap.”  And my lily-White skin.  Into an all-Black high school?  Will they be wearing black caps and gowns for graduation!?  Really?

There had been so much anger and hatred boiling over since the death of two garbage workers on February 2nd:  Blacks were incensed that the workers had been crushed to death by the malfunction of a hydraulically powered garbage truck as they crawled in the back to get out of a driving rainstorm.  Looting, daily marches, rioting and deaths ensued.  The Memphis mayor refused to work with the newly formed garbage union.  There had been a city-wide garbage strike and the stench of rotting garbage piled up all over the city as the strike continued into April.  

During the unrest, for my safety, I had been escorted for nursing shifts by armed guards in and out of the hospital.  Today, several months later, I was accompanied by my unarmed OB instructor into an all-Black high school.  An eerie, fearful feeling washed over me.  Will I be safe here?  I felt relieved that no one was in the hallway; still, I felt queasy and frightened.  I wondered if the brave Black students who went into Little Rock High accompanied by policemen in 1957 had some of the same uneasiness I felt.  My shivers were surely minuscule compared to their terror.  After all, I was invited to be here; they were threatened with their lives if they set foot into the all-White high school.

I was shaking a little and nervous as my instructor and I entered the side door of the already full auditorium.  I kept my head down as we climbed the stairs to the stage where there were only two chairs.  A podium was several yards to the right toward the front of the stage of the dimly lit auditorium.  I felt like a flashing white neon light in a sea of blackness all around me.  There were murmuring voices among the audience.  Then, a hush as the music began.  Pomp and Circumstance.  I know how this goes, I had marched into my own graduations from high school and college.  Slow, steady, solemn.  Then I realized the music was ROCKIN’!  Fast, syncopated, full of energy, promise, pure celebration.  The line of graduates appearing in the back of the hall began dancing and swaying and laughing as they made their way down to the front seats.  It was the most beautiful graduation “dance-in” I had ever experienced.  My spirit soared as my fears melted.  My heart pounded with excitement seeing the swishing gowns and feeling the delight that swelled and filled the air.  In that moment God’s spirit was palpable.  It was then I knew:  these graduates are our hope as our neighborhoods, our city, our country struggle for justice and freedom for all.    

Earlier, in March, Martin Luther King, Jr. had come to Memphis to lead a march and help heal the terror and violence.  Martin Luther King’s message was to inspire people to continue the struggle in Memphis.  “You are demonstrating”,  he said, “that we can stick together.  You are demonstrating that we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, and that if one Black person suffers, if one Black person is down, we are all down” (March 18, 1968).  He further said this Memphis struggle was a struggle that exposed the need for economic equality and social justice that he hoped his Poor People’s Campaign would highlight nationally.  In late March, 22,000 students, White and Black, joined the march. Were some in the auditorium today?  On April 3, Martin Luther King, Jr. returned to Memphis determined that if a nonviolent struggle for economic justice was going to succeed, he would need to follow through.  He was assassinated on April 4 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Two months later, now June 1968, the joy and celebration of the students in their swishing black gowns and lighted black faces imprinted indelibly into my heart.  If one of these is down, I determined, so, too, am I down.  I realized that their future is not the only future at stake.  Whatever “neon” light I felt intruding into that day must continue to transform not just the young eyes, ears, minds and hearts of these filling the auditorium, but also must transform me to work with them in the struggle for economic and social justice.  I and others must dance into the future with these young people: White and Black “tied together in a single garment of destiny” to create a new future for us all. 

Footnote:

I wonder where those students are today, 2022—they would be 70+ years old by now—I wonder if any even remember my being there.  Personally, I don’t remember a word I said, yet it has forever changed me.

Rev. Caryl Griffin Russell graduated from the University of TN Nursing School in Memphis. She went on to get her Masters and later her Master's of Divinity.

BSN, RN, Faith Community Nurse

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jeastridge, BSN, RN

131 Articles; 558 Posts

Specializes in Faith Community Nurse (FCN).

Thank you, Caryl, for sharing this important memory of part of your journey in nursing and in life. I hope other readers will share memories from that era, as well. 

Specializes in Nursing, Ministry, Global Health. Has 56 years experience.

Joy,  You are one of my wisest friends.  Thanks for your note and for your support professionally and spiritually.

Caryl