On April 4, 1968 civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther king Jr. was shot dead at the hand of an assassins bullet.
Many agree he was shot as a result of his stance on the Vietnam war he decried in a speech at the Riverside church, literally one year to the day, earlier. Many also agree that he was gunned down because he was speaking out on the fundamental and natural conclusion that his many speeches could only lead to. Poverty and it’s deleterious effects on the black and brown among us in America that day and to this day.
A photographer was dispatched to photograph the aftermath of that bloody encounter that culminated with a dead man and a cold concrete balcony brought together by a well aimed bullet. The photographer did not see his images brought to print in the magazines of the day.
But I see them now online.
To my horror.
It is strange, he opined later, that the blood was still there when he arrived after a 200 mile race to the scene. That he was white and the negroes who were there to clean the stains away were still busily scrubbing away all evidence of Americas greatest failing to date. My words, not his.
I see in the photographs bowed black heads and hard working hands accustomed to untouchable work, the struggle to make sense of the senseless. Brooms. Scrub brushes. Towels. All their available tools employed to make ready room 306 for her next unsuspecting guest.
But I ask myself as I gaze gap-mouthed at the images on my computer screen one thing:
What color will my rag be?
You see I believe that a wise man once said we have very little if anything at all to do with our birth. But as to our deaths, we all can have absolute and direct cause. Whether by our direct action or passive inaction the sands of our life will run out at some point. But Dr. King was shockingly seeking comfort in his own imminent demise. So famously he uttered that he might not get there with us and we all gasped at his seeming intimacy with his own demise. I was in awe myself when I heard the words for the first time in my life. How could he possibly be so willing to embrace his own death? Surely he loved life. He fought so hard for it to be more abundantly given to his fellow Americans. Not unlike Jesus himself who some 2000 years ago said he wanted for life and life more abundantly to be our blessing.
What was I missing?
I’ll ponder that question later. But for now the question pressing on my heart is what color my rag will be?
You see, my sanctified imagination believes that the morning shift at the Lorraine started like any other for the housekeeping staff. They expected turn down service, towel requests, mints on the pillow and dirty looks from white guests who stayed the night. It was the 1960’s, remember. What the staff surely did not expect was a life altering scene that would haunt them for the remainder of their lives. The gut wrenching duty they were tasked with, was to eradicate and erase all evidence of a life lost from a somewhat cantilevered balcony just outside of a guests room.
Can you imagine their reaction when they saw the blood? Their minds eye theatre replaying the horrific scene they were in short order required to eliminate. How the practiced hands must have shook with sadness, anger or depression or all three and perhaps a thousand other emotions the dictionary has yet to define? But the task was made plain for them and they set out to do it.
In the dark of night.
Solitary in their pain.
But dutiful in their purpose.
And the tool of their trade was a rag. By nights end the rag was no longer white but red, gritty grey and flecked with the prevailing colors of the chemicals used to solvent the offending fluids pooled on the formed stone. So the question I ask is what color will my rag be?
When I pass? When you pass? When he passes. What’s color will our rags be? Will our life’s end be such that a rag will need be used at all? Perhaps not. But the color of the proverbial rag still remains. Perhaps it too will be red for the blood shed in the defense of another. Perhaps it will be blackened for the dark duties we carried out in our final hours. Stained in the color of purity for the child we birthed. Bathed in the color of responsibility because in our lives we were given much power. Awash in the color of justice because we pursued it so. Draped in the color of life because we defended it as none before has. Splendiferous in the many hues of faith as we carried on after others said to cease but God said press on to the mark.
You see I believe that the color of my rag is a testament to my life. A representation of the dreams realized, hopes captured and made real and the standard bearer of the values I died for. My rag should not be as unblemished as it was when it was woven.
A stained rag symbolizes the struggles, joys, successes and failures of our lives. I’m not sure the color of the rag that the world will behold upon my passing. But I hope that it reflects a life well lived. Filled with colors that tell a story that my life gently touched many others and while what I said to everyone may not be recalled, how they felt remains.
The feeling of love, warmth and care.
I wish that for you too.