April 05, 2008
Story By PATRICK BUTLER
It was a tough day all around for Americans on April 4, 1968, said
three Tyler pastors last week. That day the Rev. Martin Luther King
Jr.'s participation in civil rights was abruptly ended by a single bullet.
It was 6:01 p.m. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., and King
was dead, shot by an assassin. His voice and corresponding dream
nearly did not survive his assassination, they said.
Friday marked 40 years since King was killed.
The Rev. Reginald Garrett, now pastor of New Days Community Church,
and the Rev. Dr. David Houston of Smith Temple Church of God in
Christ, were attending undergraduate and graduate university classes
in Texas in 1968. The Rev. Jerome Milton, pastor of Pleasant Hill
Missionary Baptist Church, was in the sixth grade in California.
The three men recalled what happened that day, what they felt and
what became of an entire social movement. Strong sentiments saturated
his university campus that April evening, said Garrett, who was 18
years old at the time.
"We'd heard Dr. King was shot, but not that he'd died," he said.
"There was a buzz about the dormitory. Everyone was in shock. We
didn't know what was going on. There was a mixture of emotions,
anger, shock and sadness."
When the news came that King was dead, emotions erupted, Garrett said.
"There was some civil disobedience, unrest," Garrett, now 58, said.
"There was the burning of a few buildings, cars overturned, people
It was as if a dark cloud descended over the university, he said.
"We saw Dr. King as the icon of the civil rights movement," Garrett
said, "and I personally felt his death would bring about the end of
the civil rights movement. Dr. King's death, for a lot of us, meant
the absolute end of the movement. We thought it was going to be all
over and for a lot of people, it was."
Houston was pursuing his doctorate degree in North Texas at an
evening class when the news came.
"Everyone was upset as you would expect," said Houston, who is 71.
"The white students looked around nervously, and asked what were we
going to do, were we going to riot or something?
"I said, 'Hey, man, don't worry. This isn't going to affect our
relationship.' But I understand those who let it get in the way.
People were angry because they felt their messiah was dead. King
represented the last of their hope and when people don't have hope,
they do things they wouldn't normally do."
Destroying property was a no-win option, he said. "It was not the
proper way to respond. Those involved in civil disobedience were the
ones who, in the end, would be the bigger losers. But as a black
person, I understand them."
Milton was 12 years old and finishing up his day at John F. Kennedy
Elementary School in San Diego, Calif.
"I remember the young people in class," said Milton, whose school was
integrated. "There was the empty feeling of disbelief, the teachers
leading us in a moment of silence. People started crying."
But not everyone was unhappy King had died, he said.
"It was tough in those days," he said. "Some students were glad that
King was shot and some said so. It made me angry because in my
mindset, this champion of the down-trodden was maligned. I thought,
'How dare they speak like that about him?' Some fights broke out
around the school."
Teachers and administrators put a stop to it right away, Milton said.
"They took us all into the auditorium and told us this was not what
Dr. King fought and died for. He didn't die for a fist fight."
Not everyone in the African-American community in 1968 supported
King, said Garrett.
"One thing you have to remember is the memory of Dr. King is now
bathed in sentiment," he said. "In 1968, he didn't have tremendous
support in the white community or in some cases the black community.
Some people (in the black community) perceived his nonviolent
movement as almost crazy."
And there were others calling for black Americans to rise up in
various ways. The era featured prominent and controversial speakers
such as Eldridge Cleaver, Professor Angela Davis, activists Stokely
Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, Black Muslim Malcolm X, and others,
calling for action.
"What people have to understand about those like Eldridge Cleaver,
(Black Panther) Bobby Seale, Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael is
that these were people with brilliant minds," Houston said. "The
system didn't work for them. It failed them and they felt they had no
other recourse. Their intentions were to move the people forward and
they advocated many methods. Unfortunately, their way was not the
answer. It only created more violence."
King was just one voice in the growing cacophony calling for
immediate social reform, said Garrett. "Dr. King didn't have the
widespread acceptance associated with him now," he said. "There were
still pockets in the African-American community who did not support
him - his goals, yes, but not his methodology."
The times were turbulent, almost beyond description, said Houston.
"It was a time of great unrest, discontent, fear and apprehension.
And some were led to hate and were afraid. It wasn't the best of
times. I can understand. I grew up in segregated Tyler. It gives you
a different perspective."
And King's nonviolence was only one solution offered to, and getting
the attention of, a diverse black community, said Garrett.
"Again, the backdrop in 1968 was the Vietnam war," he said. "Some
militant leaders were asking how an oppressed people
(African-Americans) could fight a war for a repressive government,
and there were some listening to what they had to say. You can't ever
look at the African-American community as some monolithic entity out
there that you can just go out and touch and get the pulse of the
community. There were a lot of thought processes going on and people
were trying to make up their minds as which was right."
King was president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
that advocated nonviolent resistance. Carmichael, at first, was
associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but
later became famous for the phrase "Black Power," which was the title
of his 1967 book. He was made an "honorary prime minister" of the
militant Black Panther Party, of which Cleaver was a member. The BPP
advocated arming the black community, ostensibly to protect
themselves from police brutality. The idea made a lot of people
nervous and more so after King's assassination.
"King's assassination shook the country up and created a lot of
violence," Houston said. "Hope had been shot down. While in prison,
Socrates wrote and warned Plato about the misology - the aversion to
following reason - when people's efforts to improve are resisted and
there is no progress. They revert to other forms of behaviorism."
Two days after King's assassination, eight Black Panthers, including
Cleaver, were pursued and involved in a dramatic shootout with police
in Oakland, Calif. One Panther, 18-year-old Bobby Hutton, was killed,
some saying he was shot down with 12 bullets while surrendering to
police. Hutton's death created a national controversy. In 1968, some
estimated that there were as many as 5,000 Black Panthers. The
organization claimed its newspaper had a circulation of 250,000.
Activist, author and future Communist Party member Angela Davis
graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis University, a non-sectarian
Jewish-sponsored university, in 1965. She graduated from the
University of California at San Diego in 1968, the year King was shot
and Milton was in sixth grade. Ms. Davis was dismissed from her
teaching position from UCSD for her affiliation with the Black
Panthers. She later obtained a Ph.D. in philosophy in Germany.
In the summer of 1968, national television broadcast the beating of
interracial members of the ad hoc Youth International Party (Yippies)
by police at the Chicago Democratic Convention. The National
Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, formed by
President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, concluded "gratuitous violence" on
the part of authorities had created a "police riot."
In June 1968, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was
assassinated. Jimi Hendrix wrote, "Try learning instead of burning"
in his 1968 Electric Ladyland album.
At the Olympic Games in Mexico City, East Texas State University (now
Texas A&M Commerce) track star John Carlos raised a black-gloved fist
on the awards podium in a "black power" salute, along with Tommie Smith.
It was in that growing, super-charged climate of past and coming
events in 1968 that King was assassinated and his voice nearly
drowned out. The killing only added fuel to a revolutionary fire
sweeping the nation, said Garrett.
"King's death only lent credibility to those who insisted that
nonviolent protests would not work," Garrett said. "It was the proof
for many that things would never change. That was also part of the
backdrop of the times."
As a child in Longview, Garrett could not attend the segregated
elementary school a block- and-a-half from his home.
"I'd walk by it every day," he said, "on my way to the black school.
Remember that integration only came to Tyler and Longview in the
1970s. After King died, no one knew what was going to happen next.
The laws were changing, yes, and now you could choose where to go to
school. But the climate was 'you can come, but you're not welcome.'"
It was the same in California, said Milton.
"We were integrated at school," he said, "but we were not together.
The lines were clear; 'stay in your place,' even in an integrated
school. 'You stay on your side and we'll stay on ours.' It was an
exciting time in the sense that America was changing for the better
for African-Americans. But you were worried, too, that you would have
another civil war with Black Panthers, Black Muslims and the like all over."
In the end, King's dream of nonviolence protest prevailed, but not
easily. Americans were slow to recognize the nonviolent leader's
holiday in his name. Some states refused to recognize an official
Martin Luther King observance for years.
Milton migrated to Smith County after attending UCLA (where Davis was
dismissed in 1969 because of her communist advocacies) and graduated
from San Diego's Point Loma Nazarene University, a private Christian
school. Milton said he founded Tyler's Martin Luther King Jr. March
and Rally 21 years ago, to help make sure King's methods would be the
focus of any actions future generations would emulate as they address
"Dr. King's vision saw building a better America, not tearing it
down," said Milton. "We need to pass on to our children and
grandchildren how we got to where we are today. We're not done yet."
The future looks bright in the South, said Milton.
"The South has really, really changed," he said. "I travel the
country as a motivational speaker and, for the most part, the South
is more progressive. I know it's hard to believe for some, but in the
South racism was blatant. In the North, it was more camouflaged and
still is. You can hide it better up North, but it comes out in the
hiring and the housing. In the South, people changed from the inside
out, instead of the outside in."
Embrace King's gospel, said Houston.
"For us to change, we must embrace what he taught, the gospel that he
preached; justice, nonviolence and respect, regardless of station in
life or what group they belong to. King was a man for everyone, not
for one particular group. He came to unite people, not divide them."
The message may not be getting out to a younger generation, said Garrett.
"I don't think the older generation has told the story of the
struggles of 1968," he said. "I don't think we've passed it on so the
younger generation has an appreciation of what it took to get to
where we are today. We have to do a better job because the plight of
the African-American has improved, no question, but I think we have a
long way to go; there is no question about that."
That's not likely to be done effectively on a mass scale, said Houston.
"Things like (Tyler's) Martin Luther King Rally are good if the
people are sincere and it's not just a nice thing to do, or they have
no intention of changing," he said. "If the goal is to reach out to
individuals, Muslims, Jews and Christians, and to see me for what I
am - a black man and what I bring to the table, my experience, my
perspective - then it will work."
Milton said, "We need more dreamers and drum majors. The South is a
good place for African-Americans to live and has become more
progressive than ever before. That was King's overall effect - a
better America for every man, woman and child."
On Friday morning, April 4, 2008, Sen. John McCain of Arizona stood
beneath the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, now a museum, saying, "I
made a mistake" by at one time not voting to approve a Martin Luther
King Jr. holiday.
CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield reported that African-Americans in the
front row, shouted to the podium, "We forgive you. We forgive you."