Forty years ago tonight a gunshot tore through the nation's heart as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
A man with a rifle killed the civil rights icon on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tenn., where King was staying while rallying workers during the city's sanitation strike.
King was a galvanizing figure whose turn-the-other-cheek appeal to better human nature made him a signal force. But at the same time his work could be as troubling for hesitant communities in his own race as it was disturbing for whites.
A glimpse at how the news struck people in the Lowcountry can be gleaned from the recollections of six who would make careers advocating equal opportunity, influenced partly by King and what he stood for.
The retired Charleston YWCA executive director, and first cousin of Coretta Scott King, King's wife, was holding a meeting in her office with other organizers of the Ebony Fashion Fair. A staff member interrupted to tell her the news was on television. Jackson rushed out to see. She struggled in shock back to the meeting.
"No one asked me what happened. They wanted to know if my secretary would be the secretary for the meeting. Remember that was 40 years ago. That's how misunderstood he was." Unable to hold herself together, she left early and went home, where her husband could barely comfort her. "I was screaming out of control. The depth of my pain was people didn't understand or appreciate Martin Luther King. That was very, very hurtful that night."
The College of Charleston humanities professor and co-author of "The Orangeburg Massacre," about the February, 1968, killing of civil rights protesters at South Carolina State College by state troopers, was a reporter covering the S.C. Senate, sitting in a chair at the back of the chamber near the door. The doorkeeper was black.
"What I remember most vividly is a rather young, upstate, rural county senator saying, 'Well, the (racial slur) is dead.' I recall looking at the doorkeeper's face. It looked like he was doing his very best to keep tears from rolling down his cheek."
The co-founder of the Wando-Huger Community Development Corp. and the East Cooper Planning Council was a military policeman at a base in South Korea. He was devastated at the killing of King. "It seemed like we had a voice for the first time. A man who turned the other cheek, if you killed him, what would you do to the rest of us?" Called in to duty, he didn't want to go, but did.
"We had to call in all the off-duty policemen at the time. There wasn't a riot on the post, but there were a lot of white soldiers getting beaten. You felt for both sides." He understood the frustration of the black soldiers, felt for the white soldiers caught up a situation they didn't create. "You just felt such a sense of loss. But at that age, you felt that wasn't going to stop what we were trying to do with the civil rights movement. We had the sense that we weren't going to go back."
The S.C. senator was at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, working as part of a two-man advance team with King's Poor People's Campaign in some of the most violence-prone areas of the Deep South.
"Everybody was shocked when they heard he was shot. When we heard he died, everybody froze. But the staff stayed strong because that's what he would have wanted. You didn't say anything to anybody. Everybody's life was in danger every day. The movement wasn't centered around one person."
The North Charleston NAACP president was home watching television with her husband and five small children, with whom she had talked about King and his work after meeting him during a protest march.
"It was really, really a terrible experience. They were young but they knew. I asked if they remembered me talking about him and they nodded. I told them he was just killed by an assassin. They just sat with their eyes stressed, almost in a shocked position. They said, 'Oh, Mommy, really?' I said, 'Yes,' and I said, 'We just have to come together and pray for the family.' And that's what we did."
The Charleston mayor was at home, watching television, facing a primary in the middle of a campaign for the state Legislature.
"Just the sorrow. You felt the tragedy. I really was wondering, what would it mean? It's hard for people who are younger than I am to remember what things were like for African Americans in the South in 1968. But I didn't know then the civil rights movement and the advocacy for opportunity and fairness and equality for African Americans would become so profoundly important for me and so many Americans. A tragic, pivotal moment."
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