Every year, during the celebration of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, I'm reminded of a dreadful day so many years ago. April 4, 1968 is a day I'll never forget. I was working the four-to-midnight shift with my partner, Leroy Spivey, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. We were on radio motor patrol during an unusually warm spring evening in the predominantly African-American neighborhood. It would get a lot warmer before the night was over.
We had been working together for about a year as the first black-and-white (referred to as salt-and-pepper back then) team in our precinct, and one of the first in the city. The tour of duty in the high-crime area had been pretty much a routine affair during the first half of our shift: burglaries, robberies, vehicle accidents, family disputes, etc.
Then, at about eight o'clock, a tragedy occurred that would change the course of history. It began for us when someone yelled over the police radio, "Martin Luther King was just shot in Memphis." Leroy, an African-American who had often spoken proudly of the man who for many years had led the civil rights movement toward equality in America, sat in stunned silence. As I steered the car along in the darkness on Sumner Avenue, I looked toward my partner and said, "Aw, don't believe that. It's some jerk with a depraved sense of humor." But a few minutes later, a voice said, "King is DOA. A sniper got him." Leroy covered his face with his hands and shook his head slowly as if trying to block out the truth of the message.
Then, over the radio, came a few comments from the less-than-human segment of the department. "Whoopee!" one voice said. "It's about time!" said another. The pain on Leroy's face intensified with each racist remark from the faceless cowards, secure in their anonymity but bereft of humanity. It was only moments later that the dreaded news swept the country and the riots began. Calls for police response flooded the airwaves as a segment of the population took to the streets, burning and looting in a mad frenzy of outrage and frustration. We spent the next twelve hours racing from one riot to another, chasing down looters, handcuffing them, and taking them to a central booking location so other officers could process them, which allowed us to return to the street.
I don't remember how many arrests we made during that long, tumultuous night, but we worked continuously until eight the next morning. Although the violence, bitterness, and hatred I witnessed during that sixteen-hour tour will never leave me, the most unforgettable sight was the intermittent tears that filled my partner's eyes as he struggled with his emotions but did his job with profound courage and dignity. He berated those we caught looting and condemned them for besmirching the memory of Dr. King. Several times during the night, we collared people who had just crashed through a store window and were running away with stolen property. My partner would grab them by the throat and push them up against a wall. "This is how you honor the memory of Dr. King?" he shouted menacingly in the such people's faces. "You think this is what Dr. King would have wanted?" he hissed, struggling to keep from pummeling those who used the death of an icon as an excuse for criminal activity.
It should go without saying that the overwhelming majority of black Americans had nothing to do with those riots, but Leroy instinctively knew that a segment of the white population would hold the entire race responsible for the behavior of a few larcenous opportunists. The episode was difficult for me, but it was devastating for my partner. From his perspective as a black man raising a family in the America of 1968, not only had he suffered the loss of the most powerful spiritual and political civil rights leader of the century, but he had to endure the indignity of seeing members of his race turn to the streets in an orgy of destruction that could only be detrimental to the memory of his idol. I don't pretend to understand the emotional roller coaster he and millions of other blacks had to deal with as they faced an uncertain future without their beloved leader. King represented more than the civil rights movement in America. He was the conscience of a nation that needed to be continuously reminded of its sins against those who were being judged "by the color of their skin, rather than by the content of their character."
Prior to that horrendous night, I didn't understood the impact the Nobel Peace Prize-winner had on the hearts, souls and minds of millions of African-Americans. If it weren't for the tremendous display of courage and character I witnessed from my partner, I suppose I would not have been able to see the other dimension to that tragedy. Leroy significantly broadened my education in the space of sixteen hours, and I became more proud than ever to call myself his partner.
Bob Weir is a former detective sergeant in the New York City Police Department. He is the executive editor of The News Connection in Highland Village, Texas. E-mail Bob.