Family Stories – Martin Luther King, Jr.

My parents met in Denver, Colorado, while working at a Red Barn (now Peaches) fast-food restaurant.  My mother tells many stories of her time there, including a description of the albino boy.

There was a high school down the street from the Red Barn, and most of the students were black.  The albino boy was black too – underneath extremely white hair and skin and translucent eyes.  He was very tall, towering over others his age.  He and his friends – and dozens of others from the high school – would come to the Red Barn for lunch pretty much every day.  They would be noisy – they were teenagers, after all – but they weren’t rowdy or destructive, and my mother enjoyed seeing them.  Because the albino boy stood out in the crowd, she ended up speaking with him a bit more than with the others, but the entire group of them she fondly refers to as “the kids”.

Times were different then; a person could go several hours without encountering any media outlet or news report.  On the day that Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, my mother woke in the early dark hours and left for work without discovering the unhappy truth.  She walked out into a pre-dawn downtown Denver where few people walked the streets, and she made her way the several blocks to the restaurant.

My mother is white.  She is not simply Caucasian – she is red-headed and extremely fair, and she is petite.  She presented, on that sad morning, a perfect target for all who were angry at something they couldn’t fix.  A cluster of these angry souls drove by in a car, slowing down to yell at my mother.  My mother had no idea why they would be yelling at her, and she couldn’t at first make out what they were saying, but then, as they pulled away from her, she heard crystal-clear:  “When we come back, we’ll kill you!”

Needless to say, my mother was unnerved.  She hoped that, if the car did circle back, that its occupants were all talk and no action.  She began to walk more quickly, to the restaurant that seemed suddenly so far away.

The car came around the block again, and the people inside were still shouting with fury.  They spotted her, and they drove toward her as though they would run her down.

My mother is not one to waste time wondering, “Why are you doing this?”  She broke into a run, sprinting as fast as she could to the restaurant, hurtling across the dark and empty parking lot with the car bearing down on her.

There!  There was the heavy metal door in the back of the restaurant; she was almost safe!

For the first time in her memory, the heavy metal door was locked.

She pounded on the door.  “Let me in!” she screamed.  She could hear the car behind her, and she pushed herself against the door, hoping that the doorjamb would be wide enough to save her if the car did hit her.  “Let me in!”

The car did come very close, its engine heat pressing against her, but the driver was apparently unwilling to crash his car into the building.  He reversed, and the heavy metal door opened, and my mother fell into the restaurant.

“Why was the door locked?” my mother yelled.

“Martin Luther King was assassinated,” my father explained.  “It’s not safe out there.”

“Why didn’t you call me?” my mother asked, understandably angry.  “I could have been killed!”

“I figured you would have heard,” my father said.

As the sun came up, the riot swelled.  People were lashing out at anyone or anything that might possibly assuage the anger and betrayal they felt.  Up the street from the Red Barn, a store that belonged to a Jewish immigrant was vandalized, his supplies stolen.  He himself was beaten nearly to death, and after the riots he was obliged to close up shop for good.  While he lay bleeding and broken, rioters took his stores of milk and eggs – among other things – and attacked the Red Barn with them.

It seems harmless, perhaps, to throw milk and eggs, but they are very unforgiving.  They never, ever come out, providing a lasting reminder of chaos and destruction.

And, of course, the ones throwing the eggs and milk were throwing threats as well, and wielding makeshift weapons.  They were charging the glass – fast-food restaurants are largely windows with little bits of wall in between – and yelling.  Their numbers were growing, and my parents and a manager were trapped alone inside the restaurant, with no weapons and nowhere to go.

They tried hiding upstairs in the office, but it seemed indefensible – a stupid place to be if anyone broke through the only door and thereby blocked escape.  They watched helplessly as rioters surrounded the restaurant like sharks, and it was an eternity before the sounds of shouts and smashing were joined by the wail of approaching police cars.

Unfortunately, the police were outnumbered; they were stretched thin across the city.  When the police cars drove by, the rioters dispersed, but my parents had to assume they would come back, angrier than ever.

The morning’s surreal events coalesced into one succinct emotional focus: the overwhelming mess was the last straw.

“How are we supposed to clean this?” my mother thought, discouraged and devastated as she surveyed the damage – the broken glass that covered the counters, the eggs and milk that coated everything inside and out and dripped from the windows onto the floor, the streets outside that had turned into an ugly wasteland in a matter of hours.  But cleaning seemed like the thing to do, so she made her way to the front of the restaurant and began to clean up.

Down the street, she caught sight of a row of heads – heads with black hair and black faces.  She watched in terror as dozens of people, walking shoulder to shoulder, made their purposeful way toward the restaurant.  The police cars had disappeared; my parents were defenseless as an army of black marchers approached, rows deep and stretched from sidewalk to sidewalk across the wide street.

My mother recognized many of them – they were the students from the high school, the ones who came to the restaurant every day.  “Please, no,” she prayed.  “Please not them.”  They came closer and closer; there were so many of them that she couldn’t tell one body from another.

Then she saw him, a head taller than the others.  Unlike the rest, he was albino, his curly hair white, his skin pale, his translucent eyes rimmed pink.

“It’s okay!” he called out.  “We believe in Martin Luther King!  We believe in his message!”  He held up his hands.  “We’re here to help!”

And the crowd of marchers helped my parents clean what was left of the Red Barn.

When my mother told me this, she rarely used the words “black” or “white”; she talked about “people” and “anger”.  She talked about Dr. King’s message of peace that she had lived her whole life by word and deed.  She talked about how stupid it is to react to grief with violence, and how anger is useless for making real change.  She talked about being hurt that people who had known her for a long while had been so quick to turn on her.  She never saw colours.  She never took anything personally, or carried a grudge.

That day, anger and hatred and fear came up against my mother the way an ocean wave might crash against the shore.  She was plenty angry that day, and still “harrumphs” when she tells the story; she was more afraid that day than she had ever been.  But she answered violence with words from Dr. King’s speeches.  She answered hatred with love for her high school “kids”.  She answered fear by kneeling down and scrubbing at milk and eggs.

I think Martin Luther King, Jr., would be proud of my mother, and my father (they are much alike, no matter what they may tell you).  I’m sure Dr. King is proud of those “kids”.  And that’s why this family story is not called “The MLK Riots” – it’s not about the riots.  It’s about Martin Luther King, Jr.  It’s about my parents’ strength and goodness.  It’s about a message that was not lost that day in the madness.

It’s about good battling evil, and about the world my mother made for me by showing it to me through her eyes.

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