By AARON GETTINGER
“We have also come here today to remind Chicago of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to end the long and desolate night of slumism. Now is the time to have a confrontation between the forces resisting change and the forces demanding change. Now is the time to let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
—Martin Luther King, July 10, 1966
Black students gathered at noon at the flagpole outside of the University of Chicago administration building on Friday, April 5, 1968, and all area schools, public and private, held services before dismissing for the weekend. Most Hyde Park businesses closed early. Area synagogues held memorials during services that evening.
That night, a man was shot in the leg in a robbery at 52nd Street and Harper Avenue and a convertible was overturned at 54th Street and Dorchester Avenue.
The Herald reported that supermarkets were open and busy on Saturday but, under police advisory, bars and liquor stores were closed all weekend. Rockefeller Chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn Ave., held an ecumenical service at 4 p.m.
All area churches observed memorials during Sunday morning services. Businesses and institutions in Hyde Park and across the nation closed to observe a national day of mourning. “The heart of America grieves today. A leader of his people—a teacher of all people—has fallen,” began President Lyndon Johnson’s proclamation.
“Martin Luther King, Jr., has been struck down by the violence against which he preached and worked.”
Two Harper Court storefront windows were shattered that night, but Hyde Park and Kenwood remained relatively calm over the course of the weekend. Riots occurred in Woodlawn and in many West Side neighborhoods. The Herald solicited volunteers for the Hyde Park–Kenwood Community Conference to sort through items donated for riot victims. “I Have a Dream” was printed in its entirety across two pages.
The Herald donated to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference along with 47 other area businesses including Hyde Park Bank, 1525 E. 53rd St.;Kimbark Liquors, 1214 E. 53rd St.; the Medici Coffee House, 1327 E. 57th St.; and the former Baskin-Robbins where, 21 years later, Barack and Michelle Obama would enjoy their first kiss.
Only one letter to the editor about King was printed in the issue following his death, from Kermit T. Mehlinger, a physician. “Dr. Martin Luther King’s appealing voice has been silenced by a sniper’s bullet; yet, his inspirational spirit speaks to us inwardly and consoles our grieving soul so that we perceive more vividly his message of peace and brotherhood,” he wrote. “His cherished dream of an America free from racism and hatred has not been shattered because the glory and beauty of his spirit transcends his corporal existence.”
The past 50 years have seen nothing if not meaningful steps forward and harsh reminders of how far our nation still has to go. Hyde Park, once shamefully maintained as a segregated “fortress on the South Side” is now one of Chicago’s only integrated neighborhoods and a black cultural and commercial hub. Mayor Harold Washington commuted from Hyde Park to City Hall’s fifth floor. President Obama maintains a residence in Kenwood.
We must not forget that the average black American inherits less, earns less and doesn’t live as long as the average white or Latino American.
American society is not weathering the degree of internal violence it experienced five decades ago, but the people of the United States are negotiating the starkest, highest-staked discussion of what our country ought to be of any time since Dr. King was taken from us.
It is in his memory and for our neighborhood, city and nation that the Herald presents these interviews with community members who lived through the assassination of Martin Luther King and into our profoundly important present.
Jesse Jackson, 76.
The audio recording of our phone interview is of poor quality. It has been transcribed to our best efforts.
They had the black groups at the Mason Temple. King gave the “Mountaintop” speech. On that day we were preparing to have dinner and to go to the rally. They wanted to watch us; it was a campaign all across the city. Around 5 o’clock, we were supposed to go out together. He came out around six and said, “Jesse, you come across the parking lot.” King had on a shirt and tie, for Rev. [Samuel Billy] Kyles’ home for dinner. The doctor was nervous he wouldn’t have an appetite by the time we’d land.
He asked to play, “Take my Hand, Precious Lord.” He stood up and the bullet hit him in the neck. It was a direct hit. He didn’t know it hit him. I ran to the balcony. It was a very shaken moment. Once I went upstairs I went to call Mrs. [Coretta Scott] King.
The next day I went home to Hyde Park, where I was living at the time at 57th and Kimbark.
Herald: What was it like in Hyde Park?
It was very somber. Very somber. Dr. King had known a lot of people in Hyde Park. They knew him.
Think of his death this way: Anti-poverty, anti-war. We’re still fighting those divisions today, okay?
Sam Guard, 92.
I told my kids to fill up every bathtub and every tank in the house, so that if the fire got to us—you could see the smoke. You could look out across Madison Park and see the smoke.
“The city’s burning, and you know why it’s burning. And you know that the fire trucks and all—you can’t rely on them.” I wanted water there so that we could bale water and throw the buckets of water on the wooden roof.
That’s what I remember about it now. You say it’s been 50 years?
Jay and Alice Mulberry, 76 and 78.
Jay: My wife and I were living in this nice but very small apartment right after we got married at Kimbark and 53rd Street. We were listening to the radio, not expecting anything. When Dr. King went to Memphis, it was nothing special to us. He was always traveling around.
It came across the radio, and we were just crushed. We just started weeping, both of us. It was one of the few times that the news had this effect on me. It seemed like the end of everything. If we felt there was any hope in the world, it was Dr. King. His death seemed like—we just didn’t know how to start over again without him. That was the immediate thing that was going on.
The next day, I had to go to school to teach. They hadn’t cancelled classes yet. I did a poor job. I tried to get my students to talk about Dr. King, and it was a failure. As deep as the event was for me, I was on the surface compared to what it was for them. They hadn’t even begun to put it together. They were all African American students who had dropped out of school before. I felt so helpless and ineffectual.
There wasn’t school the next day. There was smoke everywhere. The mayor went crazy and told the police to shoot to maim and to shoot to kill, I think, if they were stealing. I can’t remember, but it was way over the top. [Mayor Richard J. Daley’s orders were to kill any arsonists and maim any looters.] Everybody thought it was really horrifying. That was the kind of time it was. It was a horrifying time.
Every summer for several years, we expected riots. There was the death of Malcolm X, the death of Robert Kennedy. The world was really upside down, with the Vietnam War, which was no small part of people’s anxiety, and in a way I don’t know how we got through it.
It makes me feel that we maybe able to get through [the Donald Trump Presidency], because we didn’t know there was going to be a country left at the end of that. Every day, I wonder if there’s going to be a country left at the end of Trump. We got through that. Things got better. Maybe we can get through this. I hope we can get through this without the assassinations and violence of the late 1960s.
Alice: One thing that Jay seems to have forgotten is that we were supposed to have gone to a wedding on the East Coast. Jay went, but I didn’t go. The groom was a man who had taken part in our wedding, one of Jay’s college classmates. I just felt too unsettled and too upset to think of going to a wedding out of town at that time. Too many things were happening, and it was too upsetting.
I remember when I was walking in the street below our apartment, there was a woman who came along, and she was just sort of moaning. It was so unusual, I still remember it. She was so upset. I guess that was after the King assassination. It was a bad time. It was an upsetting time.
Claude Weil, 86.
I was at the time working at the Center for Continuing Education, which was a place where groups had meetings and conferences. My recollection was that, on the day that King got assassinated, there was a meeting of leaders of all sorts of various black groups in the city. They were having dinner, and then the word came that King had been assassinated. The Center—there must have been 200 people—all cleared out within five minutes or so. They just totally vanished.
What can one say? Certainly, it impacted all of the people who were associated with black groups all over the city. They all went their ways, and afterwards we had riots. After that, we didn’t get many black meetings. Everybody was so involved in trying to keep the ship upright.
Timuel Black, 99.
Dr. King had been in my life since December 1955, when I first saw him on television. He was in Montgomery, Alabama. I was in Gary, Indiana, teaching at that time. His presence on television was so impressive to me because, not only was he a very handsome man, he articulated for me a feeling I had carried most of my life, what had been given great expression when I was in World War II in combat areas in Europe. I was in France, up into Germany, and I had seen the Holocaust camps—Buchenwald—when I crossed over from Belgium.
He articulated a feeling about violence and peace and cooperation. And that idea in terms of race in America, taking what Rosa Parks had said earlier when she started the bus boycott: “I’m tired. I’m tired of segregation. I’m tired of war.” He did it so beautifully that, that day I got on a plane and went to Montgomery, in that same evening. I was there the next morning. …
King had been asked by President [Lyndon] Johnson to come north to break housing segregation. We organized, because Dr. King knew me by that time. I called him “Doc.” He called me “Tim” or “Brother Black” if I was in a crowd. …
We went into Marquette Park and organized. Now, there were a lot of people, black and white, we had to be trained to be nonviolent. We could do that in the South out of respect for Dr. King, but some had made the decision, “I can’t do that in the North.” They were trying to discourage Dr. King from going into Marquette Park and to Cicero, but he had made a commitment to do that, and so we planned it in that church at 48th and what is now King Drive [Liberty Baptist Church].
We did that, and we walked into Marquette Park. Many of the people who walked with us were Catholics, black and white, and Marquette Park was primarily Catholic. They were so vulgar towards their fellow Catholics. And then someone hit Dr. King, and still Dr. King got up and forgave that unknown person. I had said to myself, “If one of them hit me, the nonviolent movement is over.” Others had refused to be in the march because that’s how they felt. Dr. King was knocked out, and then he continued.
And then one day his brother called him to be a leader in Memphis, Tennessee. …
The legacy that Dr. King left is the thing that I think everybody needs to know, that we felt and feel the need to continue the struggle for equality and justice. His death dramatized this because we felt it was as much the war in Vietnam that put him out of order as the Civil Rights Movement—I mean put from his protests, because he was beginning to protest the war in Vietnam as much as he was with the Civil Rights Movement. He put those two in combination. …
Dr. King’s commitment to peace and justice was something that some of us carry and attempt to transfer now. I think that the recent demonstrations by young people all over the country—maybe they know their history. I believe many of them do, the leadership particularly, about passive resistance to bring about change.
And what they’re saying, as Dr. King helped promote, “We put you in. We’ll take you out.” Although most of them are younger, their parents or old relatives, they’re going to encourage those people to come out and vote in order to protect them because they’re unable to go get the education they need without their safety. I think that’s part of their mission for which they’re demonstrating.
It’s a continuation of the heritage of Dr. King that they, in fact, articulate—they speak of the Civil Rights Movement as they talk about the gun violence and the need to protect the neighborhoods against this gun violence and distribution of weapons.
Herald: Are you still hopeful for the future, that things will get better?
As people in my generation have experienced—we’re getting fewer and fewer—because we see this as Dr. King saw it and articulated it: This has been one world. Whatever the race, whatever the gender, whatever the religious commitment—we are one people. …
They can now create a weapon that can wipe out a whole city or county immediately. Looking at the future—my late son is gone and my daughter is a year older than my wife—looking at that generation, your generation and generations to follow, I have a responsibility, given my experience, given my activities, given the inspiration of people like Gandhi and Dr. King, to carry that forward, the message of peace on Earth and goodwill towards all human beings.
The death of Dr. King for many of us made that an obligation. We can’t stop now, because we can and shall overcome.
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. 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. 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.
—Martin Luther King, April 3, 1968
But now abide faith, hope, love—these three—and the greatest of these is love.
—1 Corinthians 13, translated by David Bentley Hart