Listening, 50 Years Ago Tonight

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(Since putting the finishing touches on this post early this morning and scheduling it to post, I have been reading MLK50 posts almost exclusively, and I’m conscious now of how lame mine is. Your time will almost certainly be better spent here, here, or here. If you have time for nothing else today, click the link about news bulletins below. The bulk of it is CBS News coverage from April 4 and 5, and some of it is riveting.)

I have written many times how my parents were serious radio listeners. Dad had a radio in the barn that was always on while he milked the cows. Mother’s radio sat in the kitchen on a counter near the sink, under a low-hanging cupboard in a space so small it wasn’t good for much else. Although she had several over the years, one that I remember best was a light-colored AM/FM unit with a dial that lit up brightly when it was turned on.

Although Mother and Dad listened to our local station in the morning and evening, she would sometimes tune over to WGN from Chicago during the middle of the day. On the evening of April 4, 1968, Mother hadn’t tuned back to our local station, but she had turned the radio on. A baseball game was on, likely the Cubs and certainly an exhibition game, as the regular season didn’t start until the next week. She was not a baseball fan, so I don’t know why she would have been listening. Maybe she turned her radio on and got sidetracked before she could tune elsewhere, as a young mother with boys aged 8, 5, and 1 would frequently be.

I was playing on the floor of the nearby dining room. Maybe my brother was playing with me and maybe he wasn’t; I can’t recall. I would not have been paying close attention to the baseball game, since I wasn’t a sports fan yet. That would come in another year. But at some point during the game, perhaps between 6:30 and 7:00, a news bulletin came on that Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis.

I remember hearing it. Or at least I think I do. I can see myself on the green tile floor of the dining room, the brightly lit radio playing over my shoulder, and the news coming on.

I had a precocious interest in current events for a second-grader. Because I absorbed a lot by osmosis from my parents’ radios, from the TV news they watched, and from the newspapers I saw them reading, I might have recognized King’s name. I might have heard about his Poor Peoples’ Campaign and his solidarity with striking sanitation workers in Memphis.

Now it’s just as likely that I knew nothing of Martin Luther King on that night 50 years ago. It’s possible that my hearing about the King murder may not have happened in any way remotely close to the way I recall it. Maybe I didn’t hear about it at all that night. Our memories are notoriously faulty, even regarding stuff we believe we remember vividly. And memories from childhood get more faulty as time passes, don’t they? I have had for years a memory from the weekend of the JFK assassination, a single image of a coffin on a bier, but I was three years old. I can’t honestly say whether I really saw it on TV or I saw the picture later and created the memory. I also remember telling my parents at some point in ’68 that I wanted Eugene McCarthy to be president—based on what, I have no idea, but it seems like the kind of thing I would have said. If I actually said it.

So I can’t claim to be certain about what I remember hearing 50 years ago tonight, although a future radio guy learning of the King murder on the radio before he knew anything about his future makes a fine little prophetical anecdote. It’s one of those things that should be true, which might be why I remember it that way.

If you’re old enough to remember 50 years ago tonight, how did you learn about it? If you’re not, what’s the first historic news event you remember hearing about?

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9 responses

  1. OK, since you asked for it. I don’t recall much about the MLK slaying but 68 was a jumble for most young people. MLK, RFK, Vietnam, etc. The summer of 68 was the summer between 7th & 8th grade for me so I was becoming aware of current events.

    But the event that will probably follow me to the grave happened on November 22nd, 1963. Does anyone remember the radio program “Book Trails” on Wisconsin Public Radio? Our 3rd grade class listened to the program every Friday at 1 p.m. On this particular day my 3rd grade teacher, Mrs Parmenter tasked me with turning the radio on in the back of the room. But”Book Trails” didn’t air that afternoon, instead a somber voice told of a shooting in Dallas and President Kennedy was dead. I remember that day like it was yesterday, even the weather, it was cloudy and cold with mushy snow on the ground adding to the gloom. Don’t ask me what I had for lunch yesterday, I dunno. But 11-22-63 will stick with me for the rest of my days.

    Didn’t mean to hijack the comments, just in my case the JFK assassination had a greater impact on my young mind than the others of that era.

    1. As a side note, I can’t recall the radio ever being used as a learning tool in my public school classrooms (late ’70s through early ’90s), and I’d love to hear more about “Book Trails.”

      1. Wisconsin actually has a long history of using the radio and TV in classrooms. When I was in grade school (late 60s), they’d roll in a TV set so we could watch math lessons broadcast by Wisconsin Public TV. The history of lessons by radio in Wisconsin goes back to sometime in the 1930s or 40s. I remember specifically a series of science programs we listened to in first grade, in which two students would be chosen to perform the experiments while the rest of the class watched and listened. “Book Trails” is not a program I am familiar with, however.

      2. Yes, I’d forgotten the TV in the classroom. Depending on the class, we were allowed to watch many of the NASA Rocket launches and by the early 70’s visual footage of men on the moon.

  2. Probably via the radio, on either top-40 KDWB or oldies KRSI.

    Earliest news event to make an impression: the Sputnik launch.

  3. I turned the TV on at 6:30 that night and heard a bulletin that he’d been shot. I think. I might have turned it on at 7. But I heard about MLK’s death almost as soon as it happened. Earliest news event I recall was likely the 1960 presidential election. I don’t recall the news of Sputnik, but I do remember my dad and I lying in the back yard that evening — October 4, 1957 — looking for it. I had just turned four.

  4. Wasn’t alive, but decided to look up Broadcasting Magazine archives on the amazing American Radio History website.
    What surprised me was how relatively little coverage the MLK shooting was given. The three networks each did about 15 hours of coverage of the shooting, funeral, and resulting riots. In contrast, Robert Kennedy’s shooting later that year had the networks preempting 35-50 hours of programming each, and of course all three networks did four straight days of coverage of JFK’s shooting.

    1. I watched and listened to some of the CBS coverage of the MLK assassination from the day of and the day after. There was some pretty significant “othering” going on—the tone frequently was that King’s murder had happened to someone else, as if the people who were most affected by King’s death were not members of the viewing/listening audience. I suspect that when we re-watch RFK coverage in June, the tone of network coverage will be like something that happened to “us.”

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