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5 decades after MLK assassination, a lingering pain, a lasting legacy
Local leaders, activists reflect on 50th anniversary of death of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.
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The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., is seen in this undated file photo. Martin Luther King Jr., leader in the civil rights movement was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis. (AP Photo) - photo by Associated Press

Early morning, April four

Shot rings out in the Memphis sky

Free at last, they took your life

They could not take your pride

In the name of love

What more in the name of love

U2 — Pride (In the Name of Love)

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the icon of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

King was shot and killed April 4, 1968, outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, by segregationist James Earl Ray.

King has since been acknowledged as an American hero for his quest for freedom, justice, equality and peace among all races.

It’s a solemn occasion for blacks and whites alike as the struggle for racial and economic equality that King championed continues five decades later.

Local community leaders, activists and residents reflected in conversations with The Times over the last week on what they remember about hearing the news that King had been slain and how his legacy endures in today’s generation.

Rose Johnson
The Rev. Rose Johnson

Rose Johnson

Executive director of Newtown Florist Club in Gainesville

“I paused for a moment at the prospect of writing this reflection about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for his death left a penetrating hole in my soul,” Rose Johnson told The Times in an email. “I was 14 years old when he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The moment was painful because, all around me, I was a witness that many of the injustices and the oppression he fought so hard against were the reality of my everyday life. As a teenager, I came to understand early that if one has never lived under the weight of oppression, it is difficult to describe how it seeks to erode human dignity.”

Rose Johnson said King’s prescient sermon delivered the night before he died was a clarion call for “… fair treatment where God’s children are concerned.”

In that sermon, King said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop … And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

For Rose Johnson, that message rang across the South in 1968.

“We were not in Memphis, or Montgomery or Birmingham or Jackson, Mississippi, or any of the other cities that he may have visited,” she said. “Yet his April 3 message found our community in the midst of a turbulent, deeply traumatic and complex social change crisis. The court-ordered mandate of integration to achieve racial balance, police violence and abuse of power, terror tactics used by the Ku Klux Klan riding through neighborhoods, deplorable housing conditions, barriers to voting, unfair sentencing in the courts, mass incarceration, employment discrimination and the onslaught of violence that men and women faced from just being black were the order of our days.”  

Willie Mitchell
Willie Mitchell
Willie Mitchell

Gainesville school board member

Mitchell was just 18 years old, a freshman at Fort Valley State University in Middle Georgia, and his first feeling when he heard the news of King’s assassination, like so many others, was anger. But that was quickly accompanied by a desperate ache.

“Not only did I feel anger, but somewhat a sense of a loss of hope,” he said.

King was the figure that bore faith in equal rights, and he instilled a courage and belief in African-Americans that the day of promise was coming. Mitchell said he feared the civil rights movement might die along with King in Memphis.

“That night, instead of people going back to the dormitory, we just packed into the gym and just stayed … a huge amount of the student body,” Mitchell said.

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Jim Henderson

Jim Henderson

Gainesville resident

Henderson was just 13 years old at the time, a young student living and attending school in East Atlanta.

“My high school band had journeyed by train to Washington, D.C., to participate in the Cherry Blossom Festival,” Henderson said. “We had practiced marching and playing for months in preparation, not to mention selling candy, cookies and car washes to raise funds for the trip.”

But the anticipation of performing quickly melted away as news of King’s assassination spread.

“The night after we arrived, and a day before the planned parade, came news of MLK’s assassination,” Henderson said. “The Cherry Blossom festivities were canceled, and the focus of our chaperones switched to keeping us safe for a day until we could schedule an early departure. (D.C.) was on fire, with black smoke billowing overhead. Riots had broken out, and the dads in our group camped out in our hotel lobby that night to keep watch over the band members. Heading to Union Station the next morning, we were instructed to keep our heads down as we drove through the streets to the Capitol. We posed nervously on the steps for a photo in our band uniforms with a scene of devastation playing out in front of us and the serene white columns as a backdrop.”

Henderson still laments what took place as fear mounted and a violent aftermath set in around him

“We made it to the train station and safely departed,” he said. “I never did understand why the death of a man of peace caused such needless violence.”

Civil Rights: Interview with Ruby Brawner

Ruby Brawner

Longtime Gainesville volunteer and community activist

Today, there are streets named after King in most major, and many minor, cities across the country, including in Gainesville and across the Southern states. And, of course, there is a national holiday in his memory celebrated every January.

But in his time, King was not the near-universally accepted and praised leader he has now become.

“But he didn’t let that stop him,” Brawner said.

And King’s mission didn’t stop everyday people, black and white, from joining the cause, however small or large.

“You can do your part,” Brawner said.

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Evelyn Johnson

Rev. Evelyn Johnson

Pastor at Bethel AME Church in Gainesville

The Rev. Evelyn Johnson was serving as a soldier in the U.S. Army and stationed in Georgia when word of King’s death hit her.

“When the news came down, we were sitting down in our community room just talking as soldiers normally do … about the events of the day,” she said. “It was like the spear of a swordfish pierced my heart. Darkness came over me and a chill like the lights went out.”

Though she was living and serving in a “different world,” Evelyn Johnson said, she was becoming more politically astute at the time and recalls that King’s sermons moved her deeply.

“The whole dynamics of his speech just drew me in,” she said. “I just pondered for a moment. The ministry was not in view. That came at a later time for me. His words stuck with me, though.”

Those words, about the equality of all men and the fight for social justice, were often misconstrued as being outside the bounds of the church, Evelyn Johnson said, when in fact they were rooted in ministry.

Merrianne Dyer
Merrianne Dyer

Merrianne Dyer

Former superintendent of Gainesville City Schools

Dyer was a sophomore in high school in 1968. She felt sheltered from the worst of segregation and racial prejudice, she said, because her grandfather had worked for years to make integration possible in Atlanta. And Dyer also recalls living in integrated communities, growing up and going to school with black children.

A prominent businessman, Dyer’s grandfather knew “that integration was coming … and their goal was to make it peaceful in Atlanta,” she said.

Her grandfather was a colleague of King’s own father, so the connections of the civil rights movement to her family, even if she didn’t fully understand them at the time, were strong.

“Of course, there was shock and anger and just grief everywhere,” Dyer said in reference to when news of King’s death made the rounds.

Rioting took place in parts of the country, and Dyer recalls her grandparents discussing the possibility that it may arrive at the home of the New South.

“There was great fear in Atlanta that that would happen, as well,” Dyer said.

But the worst never materialized locally, Dyer recalls. In fact, the opposite was true in some respect.

“This is what I most remember most about that time,” Dyer said. “Both black churches and white churches, which doesn’t sound so unusual now, hosted people that came for the funeral. That was a big deal then.”

It also seemed to serve King’s message and mission.

“I think his lesson is a lesson of patience and diplomacy,” he said. “That was probably the biggest lesson we learned from his life’s work. And I realized you didn’t have to be old to do something special.”

King was just 39 when he was assassinated.

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Tom Jones, Gainesville resident and ambassador for Habitat for Humanity - photo by Scott Rogers

Tom Jones

Local anti-poverty activist and ambassador for Habitat for Humanity

Jones was 38 years old in 1968 and working in Atlanta as deputy director of the Presbyterian denomination board of national ministries, serving as a liaison to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King was the first president of.

“Those were very divided times,” Jones said.

Jones’ father and mother were progressive on race issues and had long supported integration, so Jones gravitated to the civil rights movement at its earliest stages in the 1950s.

He was ordained in 1955 as a preacher after seminary training.

“The only limitation I put on my ministry is that as a Southerner I ought to stay in the South,” Jones said, adding that he wished to work on causes to reunite the divided Presbyterian churches in the north and south that lingered since the Civil War.

Jones and his team were helping plan for the Poor People’s marches, which continued King’s call for economic equality.

He remembers visiting cities in the South where marches were taking place and supporting some of the key members and demonstrators.

One of his colleagues was sent to Memphis to join King at the Lorraine Motel, and the Presbyterian group Jones worked with sent funds to help feed the striking sanitation workers that King was in Memphis to support.

Jones had agreed to do speeches in Arkansas the following weekend.

But his church leadership was still split on the issue of segregation.

“We were catching hang in the denomination,” Jones said.

Jones recalls being in the law library of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur “when the word came” about King’s assassination.

“I immediately got up and went home,” Jones said.

The next morning, he gave a devotion for Presbyterian church goers, using King’s famous 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail as a centerpiece of his own speech.

That letter reads, in part: “You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Jones said he felt a sense of loss at King’s death, but the shock of it was also mediated by a kind of expectation that something might befall the civil rights leader.

Later that week, Jones said he came across a Shriners march, the nonprofit group associated with Freemasonry, and couldn’t hold back when driving past. 

He rolled down his window and said, “Don’t you know this is a time for real mourning?”

The response he got, Jones said, haunts him still: “It’s a time for celebration.”

Today, Jones works locally to continue King’s call for economic and racial equality, coordinating with groups like the United Way of Hall County to embed principles throughout Gainesville and Hall County that everyone deserves access to affordable housing, health care and education.

“This is the community we want to be,” he said. 

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Myrtle Figueras

Myrtle Figueras

Former Gainesville City Councilwoman

Figueras remembers King’s assassination with a vividness shared by few. So many tragic events of the 1960s had happened on days that were otherwise joyous occasions in her personal life.

“It was 1968,” she wrote in a letter to The Times. “I was anxiously awaiting my 25th birthday celebration to begin. I was working in Gainesville and the news hit its big cycle: ‘Martin Luther King Jr. has been shot’ … Wow! On my birthday? I had already experienced the joy of getting engaged to be married on Nov. 22, the anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy, the sad death of my mother on April 1, 1967, and now the ‘Death of a King’? Wow! I thought I must have something special to do here on this Earth … since major events have happened on or near special days to me in my life … especially to lose humans whose ideals I have genuinely embraced throughout my life.”

Figueras said she then began to think, “Now, what?”

“Fifty years later, that question still remains,” she added. “Though the dreams and actions of many in our society have progressed positively, sometimes I feel as if some citizens are regressing in their thoughts of others’ lives. I believe that we are all human beings who must concentrate more on being ones who embrace the teachings of our Savior: love, embrace & build up one another rather than doing so much to destroy or lessen those who live among us. We are ALL created as equal spiritual beings, living in this human world together.”

This 1966 image released by HBO shows Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., left, and Stokely Carmichael in Jackson, Miss., at the Meredith March, used in the documentary, "King in the Wilderness." (Bob Fitch, Stanford University Libraries/HBO via AP) - photo by Associated Press
An enduring legacy

King’s legacy has evolved in more ways than one in the last 50 years. But the feeling among his biggest supporters and admirers is that his mission is not yet completely fulfilled. 

“Over the last 50 years, this community has evolved into a more peaceable place to live,” Rose Johnson said, “in part because of the many challenges reluctantly faced around issues of race and classism. While we still have a long way to go with many mountains to climb, thank God we are not where we used to be.”

King was in Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike when he was shot dead. And his call for economic equality, after successes passing such seminal legislation as the Voting Rights Act, was the next big chapter in the civil rights movement he led.

The Poor People’s Campaign, as this next chapter would be known, is something local activists are still pursuing.

“Dr. King’s life and legacy have left us with so much more to learn,” Rose Johnson added. “His prophetic witness was in response to the needs of the poor and their cries for relief. His understanding of how those ‘who have’ often mistreated those ‘who have not’ whether on the basis of skin color or social economic status gave rise to a movement.

“It was a movement fueled by a realistic expectation that those ‘who have not’ will ultimately resist the inhumane treatment of those who consider them unworthy. This is for me one of the most profound messages that the messenger has left behind.”

Figueras said King’s death was a “definite blow” but added that, “I try to espouse his ideals and thoughts in my daily life as I remember that each of us will die. Each of us will leave this world. Our focus must embrace the thoughts that we gain from others while they were in our presence as we continue to build lives … for the good of others … here on this Earth.”

Mitchell said in some ways the strides African-Americans were making during King’s life have faded with time.

“Those problems are still just as relevant today as they were then,” he said.

And he laments, for example, the loss of black-owned businesses in Gainesville.

“You get past the beauty shop and the barber shop and that’s about it,” he said.

But King’s legacy remains, and Mitchell believes the civil rights leader today would be on the streets supporting immigrants and those calling for an end to gun-related violence.

“If Dr. King was alive today, I think he would be out there,” Mitchell said.

Evelyn Johnson said the impact of King’s legacy has been like a “roller-coaster or an elevator” over the last five decades, with “some high moments and deep curves.”

Putting faith in action is something that needs to be resurrected, she believes.

“That’s a part we missed to a certain degree,” she said.

But hope exists among today’s youth who are taking up King’s cause, particularly the Poor People’s Campaign.

“We’re always supposed to be about improving,” Evelyn Johnson said. “The Newtown Florist Club has done an excellent job of keeping it out in the forefront. But until the sense or the aroma continues to penetrate the nostrils of the people of this day, we will not catch onto what he really was about just prior to his death.”

For Brawner, the struggle for equality will always endure while always gaining positive ground. And it requires all races to take responsibility to come together as one, she said.

“Anything worth achieving, you’ve got to fight for it,” Brawner said. “You can’t give up on it. It will never be in this world like it’s supposed to be. But as time goes by, it will get better.”

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