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Oppenheim: MLK Memory

Hy Edelstein
Adele Oppenheim is the commentator's mother, shown here in the mid-1970's. Keith Oppenheim recalls his mother's reaction on the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

A couple months ago, I clicked on one of those listicles you see online. In this case, it was something like 10 things you didn’t know about the 1960’s TV show – Bewitched.

I certainly wasn’t expecting anything profound, but then I read that on April 4th, 1968, the broadcast of Bewitched was broken into to report the assassination of Martin Luther King.

I’d forgotten my sister and I were in the basement that night watching Bewitched on ABC, but otherwise, my memory is clear. I remember an abrupt break, a yellow graphic, and the announcement – “We repeat, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been assassinated in Memphis.”

I can’t speak for my sister, but I didn’t know who Martin Luther King was; I just knew this was a big deal. Moments later, we heard our mother come into the house, schlepping in food from Stop & Shop. We didn’t really know what this was about – but we blurted the news to her. And this part of my memory is vivid. With a grocery bag still in her hands, she slumped onto a kitchen chair and repeatedly said “Oh, my God.” We’d certainly seen our mother upset before, but never quite like this.

Mom felt the loss deeply. As a Jew with a family history of loss and persecution, she felt a connection to MLK and his pursuit of justice. When his birthday became a holiday, she learned something she didn’t know – that she and King were born on the same day in the same year - 1929.

Years later, I was working as a reporter, covering an anniversary of King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Still somewhat embarrassed that, at age 7, I didn’t know who King was, I always felt some obligation to make up for that, so I read books and watched documentaries to learn more about the great man.

But for me, the thing I may associate with King the most is my mother’s reaction to his death. I also think about how things might have been had he lived – and for good reason – because just days ago, my mother celebrated her 90th birthday.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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