There are few instances in life when you remember where you were at a specific time and date, when you can remember with clarity what you were doing. Call it luck or misfortune but I have had three such moments.
The first is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. I will never forget the expression on my fourth grade teacher’s face as she walked into the room. We knew immediately that something was wrong. Mrs. Williams simply said, “They shot President Kennedy.” Wasn’t this the man who made his brother call the Birmingham jail cell of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., to make everything all right? Wasn’t this “our” President? Now gone? I saw the sadness, the tears and even at a young age I sensed the fear. It was a fear born out of an existence in a southern town defined by Jim Crow. It was a fear made even stronger with the loss of President Kennedy.
Having to stay in the hospital for a tonsillectomy isn’t fun but on April 4, 1968, that’s exactly where I found myself. I was alone wondering why my parents hadn’t visited. Suddenly – a news flash. “The Reverend Martin Luther King has been shot. Please stay in your home. There is a city curfew. All Negroes are cautioned to stay in your own neighborhood”. What the reporter failed to say was that the Klu Klux Klan was on the prowl announcing that any “n****r” they saw would meet the same fate as Dr. King. Again, the fear. Our drum major for peace was gone.
And finally, there’s 9/11. I was in my office here at WKU when images of a plane crashing into an office tower, buildings collapsing and soot covered people running in a panic. Those images are seared in my memory forever. Along with other Americans, I grieved over the tragic loss of life. But along with the grief I agonized over the growing hatred and discrimination of Muslim Americans. As an African American woman, I know what that feels like. But I struggle with my emotions. Sure, I want all Americans to enjoy the protection of the Constitution that has granted me the right to vote, protected my right to demonstrate and protest. But I also expect the government to protect me from terrorist attacks. How do I balance that need for a sense of safety with my absolute belief that no one should face prejudice and discrimination?
These are the dilemmas of the 21st century. Join us during Constitution Week as we wrestle with these issues and more. Join us for the 224th Birthday of the U.S. Constitution with a week of activities that commemorate “The Tenth Anniversary of 9/11: Lessons Learned.”
Political science department head