REMEMBERING TLC ON MLK DAY
“It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought to life and healed by all these years later…”
–Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets
Today is the 35th year of the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday—and this year it falls on the 30thanniversary of Tom’s death. When King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, we were living 180 miles south in Starkville, MS. I was still in the Felix Long Hospital with our newborn daughter Heather. My mother had come to help out with the new baby and was visiting in my hospital room that evening. We had seen clips on the evening news from King’s April 3 speech at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis—the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech. Tom picked Mother up from the hospital about 8 pm on April 4 and on the way home, told her that King had been killed. I learned the news later that evening from a nurse’s aide who was elated that this “troublemaker” was dead. I was horrified at the news and at her reaction. But we remained uninvolved and silent—as we had throughout the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.
We were children of the South—heavily influenced by white supremacist institutions like our families, our church, our Christian college. Our particular groups did not violently protest the civil rights movement—but strongly resisted integration and any sense of equality. We ignored those opportunities God was offering us to join in this struggle for justice. I wish it were not so.
The Civil War was in Tom’s blood. His family’s home on Stonewall Drive in Nashville was literally part of the Battle of Nashville. He scoured the grounds with a metal detector and delighted in finding bullets, minie balls, canteens and other relics. He trekked through all the battlefields in Nashville, Murfreesboro, Franklin and as a teenager published a small guidebook to Middle Tennessee battlefields. He made pilgrimages to Gettysburg and the Virginia battlefields. He read every book about the war he could find. He claimed to have had some late night encounters in the family back yard with a Confederate ghost – a soldier who had been killed there. He was hooked for life.
There was a Ph.D. in History from Rice University, where he studied under Frank Vandiver, a top scholar on General Stonewall Jackson. His master’s thesis and dissertation on The Army of Tennessee were published by LSU Press and widely used as college textbooks. In 1964, he joined the history faculty at Mississippi State University. Our faculty friends like us were generally supportive of the civil rights movement and often talked about what was happening in this die-hard white supremacist state. But there were no activists among us—everyone kept their head down and made no comment. Tom began reframing his identity, often reminding people he was actually a military historian and not a Civil War historian.
We moved to Columbia, South Carolina in late 1969, divorced in 1974. Tom’s book critiquing Robert E. Lee, The Marble Man, was published in 1977. He continued writing, teaching at the University of South Carolina and speaking until his death in 1991.
In his last speech, King said, “The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around.”
More than 50 years later, this is still America. I’m grateful that our children and grandchildren—in Nashville and Mississippi–are much more involved in the ongoing struggle for justice and equality than we were. I deeply regret our complicity and silence during those earlier times. I often wonder how Tom would interpret the current national condition.