50 Years Later: The Assassination of Martin Luther King

50 Years Later: The Assassination of Martin Luther King

50 Years Later: The Assassination of Martin Luther King

By Kieran Robertson

On April 4, 1968, fifty years ago this Wednesday, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. As word of his death spread, an uneasiness settled across the country. How did Ohioans react to this moment in history?

As one Columbus man recalled, he could feel the sadness around him, saying, “I’ll never forget that day how it got dark early…I’ll never forget [my father’s] silent tears falling into his plate…I’ll never forget it, it’s almost like you lose a relative.[1]

A similar grief was felt across the state. The Call and Post, an African American newspaper published in Cleveland, featured images of Mayor Carl B. Stokes crying openly at a local service honoring Dr. King.[2] One of the nation’s first African American mayors, Stokes had been elected only a few months earlier in 1967.

In Cincinnati’s Avondale neighborhood, a commemorative service was arranged only for African American residents. As state representative William Bowen explained to the Cincinnati Enquirer, “It was meaningful from the standpoint of intent and purpose. It was the same thing as a family having closed services for a beloved member who had died.[3]” For many in the African American community, losing King was like losing a member of the family.

When a loved one dies, some react with tears and others with frustration. At Toledo’s Scott High School, when a group of students realized that the flags had not been lowered to half-staff on the day after King died, they refused to go to class. The students attempted to recruit other teenagers from Libbey High School as they moved through Toledo’s West End, often throwing stones at cars. Eventually Scott High School let out for the day, under the determination that “many of the students were upset and disturbed by [King’s] death.” The situation quickly calmed as local reverends and civil rights leaders spoke to the students and calmed their fears and frustrations.[4]

These Toledo students were not alone. Around the country, at the news of Dr. King’s death, many large cities experienced riots. In the Call and Post, Rev. Arthur Zebbs of Columbus explained the frustration and hopelessness that lead to these riots, writing, “Even black folk who have good jobs are now articulating what has been lying dormant in their hearts for years; that is the feeling that if racism and hatred prevail in America, then let every city in American burn. There are people who once denounced violence but are now the advocates of violence.[5]

An emergency food distribution center is set up after riots in Washington D.C. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

While African American leaders like Zebbs understood the impetus for these riots, they also worked around the clock to ensure that the riots did not come to their cities. As Mayor Carl Stokes told the Call and Post “I’m tired, but I can’t stop now because there is too much at stake to let things get out of hand.[6]” In Cincinnati, the Avondale Community Council formed a security force made up of uniformed men wearing black armbands with red emblems and armed with walkie-talkies. As the Cincinnati Enquirer reported, “some members of the security force had gotten virtually no sleep since Dr. King’s death.[7]

Unfortunately, riots did come to Cincinnati. On Monday, April 8, four days after King was shot, the Avondale neighborhood held its service for King. Everyone was prepared- the Avondale Community Council’s security force was on hand and nearby roads were blocked to traffic. However as the service ended, shots rang out nearby. It would be discovered later that Mrs. Hattie Mae Johnson Smith had just been shot by her husband. However the crowd became tense after hearing the shots, and a rumor that a white police officer had shot a black woman quickly spread. The riots ended within twenty four hours, but by then a curfew was in place and the National Guard had made it to Avondale.[8]

avondale.jpgA man is arrested during the 1968 Avondale Riot.

Not every member of the African American community agreed with the riots around the country, in fact many felt rioting ran counter to King’s message and mission. But often even those who disagreed understood why the riots were happening. As State Representative William Bowen said of Avondale, “I hate to see it happen, but you have to consider the frustrations and emotions of the past two or three days. The shooting was the spark which ignited things and a chain reaction took place.[9]”  Even King himself had once said, “in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.[10]

Many of the rioters were young African American men and women fed up with the slow pace of freedom. King’s death served as a symbolic admonition of the ongoing Civil Rights Movement. Rioters felt hopeless as a national symbol of change and freedom was extinguished. As one student wrote to the editorial page in the student paper at the University of Cincinnati, shortly after the Avondale riots, “I am not too sure if this society can truly grasp [King’s] dream…[11]

For years, civil rights organizations had discussed the merits of nonviolence. Should it be a strategy or way of life? Would the same strategy that had struck a blow to Jim Crow in the South help end segregation in the North? Was King’s death a sign that nonviolence could not succeed? Many turned to new strategies in the coming years, bringing about increased political mobilization and participation in the Black Power movement.

In the time preceding his death, Martin Luther King’s tactics had actually begun to change as well. He, like many other leaders, turned to Northern cities where he found communities oppressed by poor education, unfair housing, and segregated neighborhoods. In fact, at the time of his death, King was in Memphis, striking with sanitation workers who were requesting the treatment and pay that they deserved and that could help lift their families out of a cycle of poverty.

No one knows what Martin Luther King Jr. may have achieved had he lived, but we still use his memory in many ways. What would King have thought of Black Power, what would he think of the Black Lives Matter movement? It is impossible to know, yet we continue to try. As with many national figures, Martin Luther King’s memory has been used to justify many different trains of thought. From the high school hallways in Toledo to the streets of Cincinnati, April 4, 1968, was a day that permanently changed the course of history. What does Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. mean to you?

[1] “Dyson Explores How MLK’s Death Changed America.” NPR Books. April 3, 2008. https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=89344679.
[2] Taylor, Woody L. “Stokes Works Around Clock for Peace in City.” Call and Post (Cleveland), April 13, 1968.
[3] Josten, Margaret. “Riot Just Too Much for ACC.” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 9, 1968.
[4] The Blade (Toledo), April 5, 1968.
[5] Zebbs, Rev. Arthur A. “We Don’t Know What’s Going to Happen, Now.” Call and Post (Cleveland), April 13, 1968.
[6] Taylor, Woody L. “Stokes Works Around Clock for Peace in City.” Call and Post (Cleveland), April 13, 1968.
[7] Josten, Margaret. “Riot Just Too Much for ACC.” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 9, 1968.
[8] “Uneasy Quiet Prevails.” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 10, 1968.
[9] “Memorial Service Not Riot Cause, Bowen Says.” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 9, 1968
[10] Rothman, Lily. “What Martin Luther King Jr Really Thought About Riots.”Time. April 28, 2015. http://time.com/3838515/baltimore-riots-language-unheard-quote/.
[11] Hewan, Clinton. “Did He Die in Vain?” University of Cincinnati News Record, April 12, 1968. http://digital.libraries.uc.edu/collections/newsrecord/1968/1968_04_12.pdf.


Posted April 4, 2018

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