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Haunting memories offer detours to the past

I wonder sometimes which memories my children will carry with them from childhood to adulthood. Like most of us, they will likely suppress the bad stuff and elevate the good stuff to legendary status. Already they have become mythmakers, remembering family occasions through the shiny veneer of love and our mutual quest for happiness. In spite of divorce, living in two households and the requisite amount of family turmoil in their short lives, their motto is "Be happy; we don't want Mom to worry."

But they will also harbor memories that lurk like sharks just beneath the surface of consciousness memories that will come up and bite them, confuse them, make them stronger for the remembering. The details will be fuzzy but the impact will be unmistakable.

One such memory has haunted me for years, and bared its razor-sharp teeth on a trip to the South a few years back. The way I remember it, I am with my family on a Sunday afternoon in 1963. We are visiting our relatives in Clarksville, Tennessee, about an hour up the road from the small town in Kentucky where we live. It is a drizzly winter afternoon, football weather.

As we drive down the two-lane highway toward the dirt turnoff to my grandfather's farm, I notice the prone figure of a man, stretched across a side street. I say to my dad, "Hey, it looks like a coat in the road." My father says it looks to him like a dead nigger. We turn the car around to check it out. A black man wrapped tight in a coat is passed out cold in the middle of the road. Someone tells a woman in a nearby house to call the police. We drive on to my grandfather's house and the story is retold, embellished, laughed over by the grownups as the children huddle around the coal fireplace warming their knees and hands.

For years, after leaving the South to live in other areas of the country, this memory colored my confused and anxious feelings about the place. I argued with friends in Hawaii that the South was no more racist than other sections of the country, that Southern white people had more exposure to blacks, more familiarity with African-American culture, more interracial friendships.

I feared that I would be exposed as a racist just because of my association with the place, just because of what I had seen and been a passive participant in -- separate entrances to restaurants, separate water fountains, good ol' boys with too many beers in 'em telling jokes about coons, the specter of the coat in the road on that chilly Sunday afternoon.

On a visit to Memphis a few summers back -- the city of my high-school and college years where, on the day after my 14th birthday, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated -- I spent an afternoon in the National Civil Rights Museum. Here, multi-media displays wind through the gutted and reconfigured interior of the Lorraine Motel, site of King's murder on April 4, 1968.

A familiar pang of fear and guilt washes over me as I shadow a large group of black tourists walking past television screens with clips of white men spewing obscenities at stoic black demonstrators in Nashville, Birmingham, Atlanta. A woman standing near me shields her child's eyes and turns his face into her skirt at the display featuring a Ku Klux Klan uniform and photographs of lynchings.

Grandmothers wearing elaborate hats and carrying big pocketbooks dab at their eyes with handkerchiefs in the room where famous speeches from the movement are broadcast. I remember my mother crying, saying, "Why'd they have to kill him? He was a man of God," while my father fumed at the television set. School kids, white and black, push the buttons on the interactive displays to see what will happen.

Outside, beyond the blistering pavement of the parking lot, decayed inner-city buildings stand silently, though just up the street the once boarded-up jazz clubs of Beale Street are packed to overflowing with a colorful mix of tourists. As in many Southern cities, the mayor of Memphis is a black man.

The coat in the road is my badge of shame. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on this Memphis street is our nation's badge of shame.

I drive the remaining thousand miles back to Colorado, my eye frequently drawn to quiet, rural side roads. I wonder what I might find if I turn down any one of them. I am looking for detours to the past, to the haunted shadows of forbidden memories.

A version of this essay first appeared in the Independent in 1997.

  • Kathryn Eastburn on haunting memories

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