50th anniversary of King assassination: Delawareans recall the shock of MLK’s murder

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester received a standing ovation after she presented an inspirational speech at the Martin Luther King program at Delaware State University. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

DOVER — Exactly half a century ago today a shot rang out in the Memphis sky and changed the world.

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, wounding the civil rights movement and sparking protests around the country.

Riots in Wilmington led to the mayor declaring a state of emergency and the governor sending National Guard troops into the city. Members of the National Guard were also dispatched to Dover, where they watched to see if demonstrations would erupt at what was then called Delaware State College.

According to Don Blakey, a former state representative who was working at Delaware State at the time, the campus was peaceful but not all was well.

As information came in “in drips and drops,” many despaired, he remembered.

“The whole thing sort of fell in on you. The pressure of it occurred as to exactly what happened,” Dr. Blakey said. “There were students that were crying, there were students and faculty members huddled in corners sort of talking about things. It was just an awful afternoon and evening.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks on Jan. 1, 1960 in Washington D.C. (Keystone Pictures USA/Zuma Press/TNS)

Reuben Salters was on the other side of the globe at the time, stationed in Guam as a member of the Air Force. But his reaction was shared by millions of Americans.

It was like there was “a bullet through my head,” the former Dover councilman recalled. “Just shock. Just dismay and discouragement.”

That day still sticks in his mind as though it was a matter of hours, not decades, ago.

Because he was in the military, Mr. Salters was unable to participate in the civil rights movement as much as he might have otherwise, but he followed Dr. King.

“(I) suffered with him silently as he struggled to bring the consciousness of the American public up to where God would want it to be,” Mr. Salters said.

The days that followed the assassination marked a dark time for much of the United States, Delaware included. The National Guard remained in Wilmington until January in what is believed to be the longest occupation of an American city by a state military in history.

While some students at the historically black college subscribed to the more militant approach of Malcolm X, who had been killed four years earlier, the mood on campus was grim, and students opted for vigils over riots, Dr. Blakey said.

“We did not have the same kind of anger and retribution that you found in the big cities,” he noted.

He noted both Dr. King and the college’s president at the time, Luna Mishoe, were members of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first Greek fraternity for black men.

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Democrat who in 2016 became Delaware’s first African-American elected to Congress, grew up in Wilmington, the same city divided by the 1968 protests.

In a statement, she said the assassination “sent global shock waves and shook countless communities and millions of families, like mine, to our very core.”

Dr. King continues to live on as a symbol of black empowerment, of peaceful protest and of the difference one man can make.

“You feel his impact and spirit in every social justice movement since — proving that his dream is alive and well,” Rep. Blunt Rochester said. “Though there is still much progress to make in the fight for universal equality, we must keep his legacy alive by reaffirming our commitment to ensuring all children have the opportunity to reach their full potential regardless of the color of their skin, their gender, their country of origin, or who they love.”

The Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Ellen Creager/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

Both Mr. Salters and Dr. Blakey said they believe the country has made strides in race relations but has also suffered setbacks over the past 50 years. Mr. Salters believes many Americans have grown complacent and the United States has lost its “moral stability.”

Despite that, he is confident Dr. King’s words continue to endure.

“He was doing the right thing,” Mr. Salters declared. “He was doing God’s work. He was doing mankind’s work. He was speaking for all the people.”

Community reflections

Bernice Edwards, executive director of the First State Community Action Agency, was 20 years old when Dr. King was killed. Working in a restaurant in Rehoboth Beach, she remembers someone coming in and saying, “Dr. King was just shot!”

“I just started crying,” she said. “It struck home for me because I’m originally from Georgia and I personally identified with the injustices and prejudices of the times growing up as an African American female. It was very emotional.”

The feelings of shock and disbelief were the first to set in, but Ms. Edwards said they soon gave way to pain and anger among her friends and family.

“We felt a lot of anger,” she said. “I was never at the point of retaliation, but it hurt. Honestly though, over time you realize that it takes more energy to hate.”

Waynne Paskins and Hattie Bull — who belong to The Sunshine Circle Club with Ms. Edwards — had similar experiences. The club is a community advocacy group that raises funds for scholarships to be awarded to college-bound students.

Ms. Bull was a student in an all-black high school in Georgia at the time.

“They came on over the PA system to tell us that Dr. King was shot,” she said. “It was devastating. Personally, I’d admired him so much because of his non-violent movement in our country. When he talked about people, it was about everyone, not just African Americans.”

Ms. Paskins, 25 at the time, said she’d overheard someone say Dr. King was shot as she was walking down the street in Georgetown.

“We couldn’t believe it — similar to how it was when John F. Kennedy was assassinated,” she said. “I just remember feeling overwhelmed by this feeling of: who’s going to lead us now? African Americans were making strides in this country with the bus boycott and the marches, and it felt like it was all going to stop.”

The three women agree though, that the sudden loss of the “greatest civil rights leader” of their generation inspired in them to become leaders themselves and support their community in their professional and private lives.

“We do our best to encourage the youth that they can do anything they put their minds to, if they work hard,” Ms. Edwards said. “The biggest thing you need to lift you out of poverty is education — it’s the key. So we’re always encouraging that.”

As far as Dr. King’s legacy the three women say they believe progress have been made in the country racially since his assassination, but much work remains.

“We’ve made some strides, but not to the point that I think we should have,” said Ms. Edwards. “If only the energy people use to maintain a separation could be taken and made into positive energy, things would improve. Because America is great, we’re a great country, but we can do better.”

To honor his memory, the three women say that, along with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Organization Sussex County Inc., they will enjoy a program at Friendship Baptist Church in Lewes on Sunday.

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