Locals recall King’s assassination 50 years later
by Robert Joseph Baker | April 4, 2018 6:54 am
Last Updated: April 4, 2018 at 9:54 am
Sen. Kevin L. Johnson Jr. remembers a warm day in 1968 when devastating news flashed across his grandparents’ TV screen.
His grandmother and grandfather were distraught over the newscaster’s words: Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. Johnson, just 7 years old, did not fully understand the magnitude of King’s assassination.
“Although I did not comprehend the magnitude of the news as a young child, I remember my grandparents being very upset,” Johnson said.
King was in Memphis, Tennessee, to support black sanitary public works employees. The workers had been on strike since March 12 for higher wages and better treatment. One incident saw black repairmen receiving pay for two hours after being sent home for bad weather, while white employees sent home were paid for the whole day. At the same time, King was also planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People’s Campaign.
The civil rights leader that many of his peers looked to as a modern Moses was booked in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. King was standing on the motel’s balcony when James Earl Ray shot him at 6:01 p.m. April 4, 1968. The bullet entered King’s right cheek, smashing his jaw, and then traveled down his spinal cord before lodging in his shoulder.
King was transported to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where doctors attempted surgery to save his life. He died at 7:05 p.m. He was 39 years old.
This week mark’s the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination. The Manning Times asked several local residents and leaders in the community to remember where they were when they first heard the news and if they believe that, after five decades, we have realized King’s dream of equality.
For his part, Johnson said King’s dream has not been fully realized.
“Dr. King wanted to see equality and justice for all people,” he said. “As he famously said, everyone should be judged by the content of their character as opposed to the color of their skin. In 2018, there are still too many people who will not accept that concept. Hopefully, one day, his marvelous dream will become closer to reality.”
Manning resident and nurse Margaret Walker was 13 years old in 1968. She was at home with her mother when she heard the news.
“I, as well as my mother, was devastated,” she said. “It was tragic. It was unbelievable.”
Like Johnson, Walker is not convinced that King’s dream has been fully realized.
“I don’t think Dr King’s dream has been totally achieved,” she said. “I’m uncertain how we can get there, because hearts must be changed and that can’t be legislated.”
Alcolu native Rebecca Burgess agreed. She was in the eighth-grade at Alcolu Elementary in 1968.
“I don’t think the United States is there yet,” she said. “There are god people from all races, but the events of the past few years from the national elections, shootings and even the Academy Awards are all evident that we have not arrived.”
Burgess said that black Americans remain under scrutiny that other races don’t face in the United States.
“One of my best friends is of another race,” said Burgess. “We can walk in the same store, and I am under a microscope as if I would take something that doesn’t belong to me.”
Burgess echoed Walker when she noted that getting to King’s dream takes a change of heart.
“I would love to see the day come where I am not judged by the color of my skin, but the content of my character,” she said. “Maybe we could get there, but how? When we all start taking God at his word: ‘How can you love me whom you have never seen and yet hate your brother whom you see every day?’”
Clarendon County Council Chairman Dwight Stewart, who was a sophomore at Clemson University in 1968, said that progress has been made toward full equality, but there is still much work to be done.
“I do see some progress, as the prejudices of my grandfather were not those of my father; the prejudices of my father are not those of mine; and my prejudices are not those of my children,” he said. “Perhaps my grandchildren will be a part of the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream.”
Local businesswoman Ella Dingle was born in 1968. She said “we are getting there” when asked about the progress of the Civil Rights Movement.
“The only way I think we can get there is by showing more genuine love,” she said. “Folks don’t show enough love. Love is the key.”
Clarendon County Auditor Patricia Pringle agreed.
“In the country today, we have so much divisiveness and hatred, it seems like we are going backwards in time,” she said. “I am optimistic we can get there because with God all things are possible. But I don’t feel it will be in my lifetime. We need to have more unity, love and respect for one another as human beings and love and respect for God, and not be judged by the color of our skin or our social status.”
Pringle was 8 when King was assassinated. She doesn’t remember the announcement of King’s death, but said she clearly recalls watching the funeral procession on TV “and feeling so sad because of the people crying on TV and seeing the tears of my mother.”
It was just two years earlier that King had visited South Carolina, marching in Kingstree.
“Although I was only 6 at the time, I remember by daddy, the Rev. J.H. Pringle, coming home late one night and pulling off his shoes,” Pringle said. “His feet (were) blistered and he was saying how tired he was.”
Pringle remembers asking her father where he had been to get such blistered feet.
“I will never forget the look of pride on his face when he said (he) went to see Dr King and that (they) had to walk a long way and stand for a long time,” Pringle said. “He, along with the late Billie S. Fleming, the Rev. O’Donald Dingle and others from Clarendon County went that night. It wasn’t until years later that I remembered the significance of that day.”
Likewise, a 9-year-old Judy Gamble Hooks recalls hearing the news of King’s assassination but not fully realizing the ultimate fallout.
“We were living on Church Street and I was watching TV when the program was interrupted to make the announcement,” Hooks said. “The picture in y head is still as clear as it was then.”
Hooks called King a “man of peace” and said that his dream may never be realized.
“Our world is too full of hate about too many things,” she said.
Manning resident Cathy Gilbert agreed. She said that children are taught the negative aspects of the Civil Rights Movement in school, but remain ignorant of the simple parts like equality and mutual respect.
“I do not think we teach enough about the role and purpose of equality to children today,” Gilbert said. “We teach about slavery and we teach about the Civil Rights Movement, but that was all in the past. We need to teach kids from the earliest of ages that while we may look different, worship differently and even live differently, that our hearts are all the same and we all deserve respect from each other.”
Gilbert said that current events – such as police shootings of young black men – are “driving a bigger wedge between us.”
“Police need more sensitivity training,” she said. “(They need training on) how to subdue a suspect without killing them. Kids need to be taught, also, about respective law enforcement and how to behave in an encounter with police.”
Gilbert was sitting in her family’s living room in Charlotte, North Carolina, when she heard of King’s assassination from a TV newscaster. She and her mother were not only saddened, but also terrified.
“My mother thought there would be rioting in Charlotte,” said Gilbert. “It was embroiled in school desegregation battles at the time. Curfews were ordered but there were no riots that I know of.
There were, however, riots in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Baltimore, Louisville, Kansas City and more than two dozen other municipalities in the United States. Two months after the assassination, James Earl Ray was captured at London’s Heathrow Airport while trying to leave the United Kingdom on a false Canadian passport in the name of Ramon George Sneyd. Ray, who was on his way to white-ruled Rhodesia in Africa, was quickly extradited to Tennessee and charged with King’s murder.
Ray confessed to the murder on March 10, 1969, recanting just three days later. He pleaded guilty ultimate to avoid a trial conviction and the possibility of receiving the death penalty. A judge sentenced Ray to 99 years in prison. Ray died in 1998 from complications due to chronic hepatitis C. He had spent the 29 years he had been in prison unsuccessfully trying to recall his guilty plea.