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  • Valerie Bryant

Lessons from a Red Snowflake: In Remembrance of the Late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

My mom was staring motionlessly at the tv broadcast when I bounded into our living room. To see her standing stock still before the tv was an odd sight since she was not one to waste time indulging in the screen. Instead, Mom seemed to live with a persistent diligence, ever searching for

ways to move herself and our family forward. She had experienced more than her share of life hardship which she could have used as reason to live with bitterness – blaming everything and everyone for her misfortunes. Thankfully, not being a woman of such ilk, she figured ways to snatch hope from the jaws of despair – to live forward. Yet on this day, I recall seeing odd countenance upon her face; it exuded no joy but displayed dreadful mourn. The words she next spoke as I stood at her side still hauntingly echo today as they did in that moment. Her words:

“The King is dead!”

The scenes on our black and white tv ran images of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the photo of his fallen body we've come to know so well. He had been shot as he stood on a balcony of the Lorraine Hotel. A few of his friends and colleagues were cradling his lifeless body where he had fallen as others pointed in the direction of the fateful bullet’s source.

My mom, dad and I were living in a southside Chicago ghetto in a high-rise apartment building across the street from the infamous and resplendent Garfield Park. Many a day I would gaze at it from our 3rd floor apartment. My imagination was born from those moments that defined my peace. What I couldn’t know was that my peace would once again be disturbed by yet another reality ugly aftermath that followed Dr. King’s loss of life.

School was still in session, so I imagine I had to attend that next day – a Friday. After returning home from school, I would have changed into play clothes and, at some point, gazed upon Garfield Park. We waited for Dad’s return from work. The sun had begun to set. Night fell.

All peace broke when my dad, a quiet man by nature, bounded almost recklessly into our apartment and went into immediate conference behind closed doors with my mom. I waited, sensing something more was wrong - again.

When my parents emerged from their room, dad rushed about, rummaging and suit casing critical possessions and food items as my mom tenaciously rifled through my belongings, packing my clothes. This Friday would be different. Instead of enjoying a typical evening together playing board games, Dad was rushing us out the door. I must note how my dad who always lovingly regarded my mom, even now impatiently prodded her to keep up with him as he moved ever so swiftly. Mom must have strained, being that she was in the last months of pregnancy – yet she kept moving.

The worst part of this scene was when Dad had to guide us through an open access window and onto an exterior fire escape ladder that always hung perilously on the side of the building. The steps and sides had dizzying open-steel gratings – so designed to prevent the buildup of snow, ice or leaves. For security, these hung on a suspension system well above the ground when not in use to keep ground-level intruders from gaining access to the building. This meant that as we reached each floor below, we had to wait for the weight of the lead person to activate the ladder to incrementally lower.

We finally reached ground level where I noticed families like ours in mad panic scrambling everywhere. Oddly for me, as I ran to keep up with my parents, this was when I noticed marvelous items wafting in seeming innocence from the heavens. These looked to be sparkling, glistening red snowflakes but even as a 6-year-old, I knew this was an anomaly since snowflakes had been white all my life. Still, these red beauties were landing everywhere about us only to dissolve in heaps of ash. What I couldn’t know was that our apartment building was perilously perched on the corner of Homan Avenue and Washington Blvd on the West Side of Chicago. Residents living along Washington Blvd, in their grief and hopelessness behind “The King’s” assassination, were torching their neighborhoods and businesses. These fascinating red snowflakes were the resultant, deadly embers that filled our night sky. They threatened gas-filled cars and singed everything in their path. We later learned that a section of our apartment building had burned.

Unlike some of my 1st grade classmates who were surely caught up in this terror, I was blessed that my parents had some financial resources. This enabled dad to whisk us away to a distant hotel in a safer location where we hunkered down in a 1-bedroom hotel for days until peace was restored.

  • As we waited, a shoot-to-kill order was given by authorities, so we dared not return.

  • As we waited, my parents took turns walking me where they could in the lobby. I’m certain my well-massaged imagination helped me maintain my sanity.

  • As we waited, mom read to me and introduced me to math-based exercises and numeric crossword puzzle books. That’s likely when my love for math began, eventually leading me to earn a university math degree, years later.

While Dr. King sacrificed his life to move his dream of equality forward, my parents also had a coinciding dream. They could have let it die with the assassination of this one man – a great. Nonetheless, they insisted on making something good come from that dreadful situation, anyway. They moved to pay their dream forward in me, and later, my brother. I cannot fathom how they also must have struggled with numbing pangs of hopelessness to see Dr. King's demise. Still, their steely spirit to prevail is surely what maintained their dream when those of others perished on smoldering ash heaps of despair.

Remembering the late Dr. King, I often recall those red snowflakes. They represent to me moments of disbelieving terror and the potential destruction that can follow if we don’t move with assured rightness. They also tell me that we must first set ablaze within ourselves solid purpose and passion to live – to prevail. Red snowflakes tell me that to overcome life iniquities, hardships and setbacks, I must keep moving.

Lastly, as you remember the late Dr. King, I hope you find motivation in these words from a speech he gave at Spelman College in the year preceding his death:

If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

At 6:05 P.M. on Thursday, April 4, 1968, Dr. King was shot while standing on a balcony outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was rushed to a hospital and died an hour later.

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