Martin Luther King And What His Death Meant To Me…Lessons Learned

I already told you where I was when Ronnie Reagan got popped, but last night I started thinking about the day Dr. King was assassinated…April 4, 1968. The differences couldn’t be more stark. In 1968 I was a skinny, whimpy, nine year old kid who was attending our local Catholic school. Back in the late Sixties, the Catholic Church was a little more…radical is too strong a word, but progressive works. Anyway, I had been volunteered by my parents to help the Nuns clean up around the grounds of their convent. A pretty Spring day raking flower beds and stuff.

I had been there about an hour when- this was actually April 5th…news didn’t travel instantly back then and Nuns as a habit…get it? A habit?…listen to much radio or TV- one of them came running outside, completely distraught and with tears running down her face, almost screaming that Reverend King had been murdered. I’d never seen a Nun display any other emotion than frustrated anger at their pupils in school before and the sight of her fear and obvious agony startled me to point where her expression is still imprinted in my memory to this day. It was clear in that look that somehow the world had just changed. And it was a bad change.

Within a minute, all the Nuns (and myself) were kneeling in the damp dirt, heads bowed in prayer…after all, that’s what Nuns do…crying through innumerable “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys”. It was amazing to be a part of. Dr. King wasn’t a Catholic of course, but to the Nuns he was still a martyred man of God and his brand of religion didn’t matter at all. Or maybe, they knew what was coming and were praying that it wouldn’t happen. Or maybe both.

Of course, within days the trouble started. My father was a Councilman-at-Large for Woodbridge, NJ, which encompassed Perth Amboy and we lived within a few minutes drive from Rahway, Elizabeth and Newark. The worst riots in our area were of course in Newark, but there was a sense of something ready to explode almost anywhere a few Black families lived. No more Hippie peace and love. Fear, anger, betrayal and division were the new emotions.

As an elected official, the Woodbridge police issued my father a .38 revolver, in case someone attacked him as being part of the “Establishment”. In addition to being a politician, he owned a school bus company that served a lot of Black areas. Since the 1930’s he had always had his name painted across the side of his busses- Terzella Bus Service- Owned and operated by Charles J. Terzella. Everyone knew his name and who he was.

I was standing outside my parents closed bedroom door, eavesdropping, as my Mom and Dad were having an argument…not angry, fearful on my Mom’s part, calm on my Dad’s…as she begged him to carry the gun. My Dad was chuckling, trying to soothe her; it turned out he was putting the bullets in a Baggie in a drawer and the gun in the closet. He had no intention of going armed. Years later, after he died, I found the bullets, still in the Baggie, in his drawer.

In another moment forever ingrained in my memory, I listened as he said, “Kay, all these people know who I am. I take them to school everyday. I took their parents to school,” he laughed a bit, “I probably took some of their grandparents to school. They know me, they know my car, they know what I’ve done and what I stand for. I’m certainly not going to shoot one of them and if one of them wants to kill me, then I’m not the man I always thought I was.”

It was a strange sense of logic, one based on honor and completely disregarding the fact that there might be some guy out there who didn’t care about anything but striking back at the race that killed Dr, King, a Whitey, any Whitey. My Mother saw it, knew it was the wrong way to look at it. Me? I was just terrified that someone was gonna kill my Dad.

But my father still sent his busses through Perth Amboy, Rahway and Elizabeth. He drove his shiny White Chrysler New Yorker with the “KCT-1” plates, identifying him as Councilman Charles Terzella Sr. through the Black communities, his constituents. No one did a thing to him, no one threw even a rock, let alone took a shot a him. My Dad was right- it turns out he was the man he’d always tried to be and the people respected him for it.

My Dad and I didn’t always get along well…fathers and sons…but I’ll never forget the pride I had for him during those days. His lesson, although he never realized he was giving it to a scared little boy hiding outside his closed bedroom door, has stayed with me these last forty-plus years: Do what you believe is right and honorable and if it gets you killed, then, well, it gets you killed, but you gotta believe in yourself.

Of course, both my Dad and I had and have broken some laws in business over the years too; that’s not what I mean. But any laws we skirted didn’t hurt anyone else. We never took advantage of someone with less than we had to get ahead. You never do that. Never.
If you take a job or accept a responsibility, you try your damndest to fulfill it and if doing that puts you in jeopardy, well, then it does. The point is, when you close your eyes for that last time, you have to know, God and heaven be damned, that you did what you believed to be right and good. I guess Dr. King knew that better than anyone.

But sometimes I really miss my Dad.