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Spending a Night in the Concord Jail When Martin Luther King, Jr. was Assassinated

Martin and me

Reaching the park at dusk, I wandered around until I found the marked spot, a slight depression in the ground, where Thoreau’s cabin, long since rotted away, had been. Figuring it was where I should bed down, I spread out my much too light sleeping bag and crawled in, just clouds began to release a cold drizzle a light rain. I pulled the bag over my head, took out my flashlight, opened my notebook, and pondered how to start the paper.

Before I could write a word though, a gruff voice rang out. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I heard. Sticking my head out of the bag, I found myself looking up at a large police officer who was shining his flashlight down at me.

I explained to him that I was a college student and that I had come to Walden Pond to write a paper on Thoreau’s and Gandhi’s influences on Martin Luther King. He replied, shockingly, “Yeah, well they just shot him. He’s dead!”

I was dumbstruck! How could this be? I asked for more information and the cop just said, “Someone shot him in Memphis.”

Then he said, “Come on. You have to leave the park. It’s closed after sunset.” Then, a little more kindly, he added, “Anyhow, you can’t sleep here. It’s raining.”

I said I didn’t have anywhere to go, and he said, “Well, you could sleep in the jail, but I’d have to arrest you to put you in a cell. You’d be charged with vagrancy, but in the morning we can rip up the ticket and let you go.”

It sounded like a good deal to me, so I followed him to his squad car and we rode to the jail. While it wasn’t the same Concord police station that would have been there in Thoreau’s time, I realized that the jail I was being brought to was the direct linear descendant of the jail in which Thoreau had spent a night for his tax refusal. That is where Thoreau was famously visited by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who reportedly said, “Henry, I’m sorry to find you here,” to which Thoreau replied, “Mr. Emerson, why are you not here?”

My own night in the cell was largely uneventful, except for a disturbing snippet of conversation between two of the cops on the night shift, whom I overheard discussing the King assassination.

“That’s King’s widow on the radio, talking about her husband,” said one cop.

“Yeah, they finally killed that nigger,” said the other.

Clearly, I thought to myself, this country has a lo-o-o-ong way to go.

It still does.

That night, I sat in my cell on a hard bench that served as the bed, locked inside in accordance with jail rules, and hungrily ate the peanut-butter and white bread sandwiches offered to me by my racist jailers, while I wrote my paper which, at that point, came easily to me.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead, but the movement to create a peaceful society and a peaceful world where people are not oppressed or exploited, and where every child of every race and nationality can grow to her or his full potential continues as his legacy, half a century later.

No one, certainly including Dr. King, ever said it would be easy.



story | by Dr. Radut