By Dave Lindorff
For the first 18 years of my life, my birthdays were purely celebratory occasions, but since 1968, the day has always come tinged with a shadow. April 4 is the day Martin Luther King was shot.
I actually learned about King’s death sitting, appropriately, in a jail cell.
I was a freshman at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and had been given an assignment in my philosophy class to write a paper on Henry Thoreau’s influence on Mahatma Gandhi, and of course through him on Martin Luther King. Being 18 at the time, and it being spring, I decided I should write the paper not at school, but at Walden Pond in Massachusetts.
Accordingly, I left school, cut my classes, and hitchhiked up to Concord, Mass. I arrived there in the late afternoon and found my way to Walden Pond, which is a small municipal park. Poking around the edges of the lake, I located the site of Thoreau’s cabin, which was really, at that point, just a slight depression in the ground, the cabin long since having rotted away. I sat down there, where the philosophical author of the concept of civil disobedience had lived briefly, and began to write myself.
As it got dark, I laid out my sleeping bag, slid in to protect myself from the chill, and kept working, writing in pencil by flashlight.
It began to rain.
It was a drizzle at first, but eventually it came down a bit harder, and I began to rue my failure to bring along a tarp of some kind. I was getting soaked. Still, I figured Thoreau had suffered in his time, refusing to pay a war tax to support the government’s war of aggression against Mexico and ending up in the pokey, so what was a little cold and wet?
Then a policeman came up, attracted by my light.
“What are you doing here?” he asked me, his voice more puzzled than gruff. Clearly he was amazed at how wet and miserable I looked.
“I’m working on a paper on Thoreau’s influence on Gandhi and Martin Luther King,” I said, realizing how ridiculous that must sound.
“Yeah, well King’s dead,” he told me. “He was just shot in Memphis.”
I was stunned. It took all my resilience away and I started to shiver.
“Look,” the officer said kindly. “It’s cold, and it’s going to be raining all night. You can’t stay here in the park after dark. Technically, you’re trespassing, so if you want, I can take you in and you can sleep in the jail. But I’ll have to lock you up.”
It sounded like a good deal to me. A warm bed, and maybe a cup of coffee.
So he drove me in to the Concord jail. I don’t know whether he violated protocol, but I was not cuffed for the ride in the back of his patrol car.