I've struggled for a week to somehow tie a single cigarette on the balcony of a Memphis hotel almost 46 years ago to today without it sounding vapid or dumb or callous or weird or misguided or dumb or worse. or something. Maybe someone at GUS has gone down this path before, and recounted these few tidbits of information. I don't know. I do know that although today is a commemoration of his birth, and life, these aspects are part of the story too.
He liked to smoke as did many of his contemporaries (more than 40% of US adults back then, both my parents included) The historical record speaks of that, although there are scant few photos of him doing so. He didn't want to be seen doing it, feeling it was a poor image to project to young people, although he himself was only 39 on that April evening. And I suppose "like" is as much a relative term as "young," for don't most of us believe we "liked" smoking while we were doing it?
Tom Houck, his driver, claims when Martin would return to Atlanta he’d buy a pack of cigarettes and was always trying to quit. "Coretta thought Martin had stopped lighting up, until the day she found a pack of his favorite Salems in his coat pocket. He blamed the cigarettes on me. Naturally I agreed, even though Coretta knew I didn’t smoke at the time. From then on, he’d give me his cigarettes before we drove up to the house; but the next morning, he would always ask for them back…"
There are photos of the cigarette on the balcony, if one is so inclined to look. I'm not linking to those although they came from Joseph Louw who was staying at the Lorraine Motel making a documentary of King, and who grabbed his camera when he heard the shot. This one is probably the most well known, published through TimeLife/Getty Images, and yes, I'm fair use-ing it for the purposes of this brief diary.
Louw asked Memphis resident Ernest Withers, a free lance photographer whose own work is iconic, to help develop that photo and last year it was revealed that Withers had been a paid informant for the FBI from 1958 - 1972.
As for the actual cigarette, Reverend Samuel Billy Kyles took it and the pack out of King's pocket before the ambulance arrived. He claims to still have the pack. Kyles was the only other person on the balcony when the shot occurred and is now one of the last eyewitnesses left alive.
It was partly through Kyles urging that King was in Memphis that day, to lend his support for the sanitation workers strike that had started in February after two men, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death because "city rules forbade black employees to seek shelter from rain anywhere but in the back of their compressor trucks, with the garbage."
I've worked in industrial settings, with hydraulic and other heavy equipment and had my own brush with dismemberment, and Cole & Walker's deaths are haunting. They really encapsulate where we as a nation were just a short time ago. And how far we've come. And how much we still have left to do. All of us. Collectively and individually.
Personal progress is a huge part of what we talk about here at GUS. We know that great change is usually accomplished with small steps, through trial and error, multiplied by time and repetition, and built on increasing layers/levels of success. It's one day at a time.
If you're still smoking, please, please think about quitting.
Even if it's just for a minute.
You are so worth it.
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It's . really.
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Mon AM: anod