Fifty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis while standing on a motel balcony.
King was 39 when he was murdered by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968. His death sparked unrest across the country.
Half a century later, in response to emailed questions from the Courier, Liberty County Commission Chairman Donald Lovette, Long County Administrator Frank Etheridge and Keep Liberty Beautiful Director Sara Swida recalled where they were when they got the news of King’s slaying.
“I was in seventh grade at all-black Hineshaw Elementary School,” Lovette said. “Of course at that age I was aware of the marches and demonstrations but not in full understanding of the intricacies of the civil rights movement. However, even at seventh grade age Dr. King was respected as a hero to African American youth. When the news came to our classroom our teacher tearfully made the announcement. She said ‘they killed Dr. King.’ Being the strict disciplinarian that she was, to see her in tears spoke volumes to the impact of Dr. King’s assassination. All the students sat there in shock and disbelief. Later that evening our family sat glued to the TV watching the CBS Evening News. Once
again, in shock and disbelief. We all followed the story from the report of his death to his burial in Atlanta. It felt like losing a family member.”
Swida said she was at home in Dublin when she was told King had been killed.
“I definitely remember how sad it was,” Swida said. “My sisters and I were hanging out in the yard and my mom came out and told us. She said she really did not know what this world was coming to. I think people have this perception of what people were like in the Deep South back then. I can truly say my parents, and particularly my mother, would absolutely not tolerate us thinking in any way that we were better than anybody because of any reason, but especially not something as ridiculous as the color of one’s skin. We would certainly have gotten our posteriors totally torn up for something like that.”
Long County Manager Frank Etheridge, an Army brat and also veteran, was overseas when King was killed.
“In April 1968, I was in second grade in Bad Kissingen, Germany. My dad had just been notified that we would be reassigned to Fort Benning within the next two months. While the Army certainly wasn’t perfect I believe at that point people were trying to work together. We lived in a three-story apartment complex on post and had a diverse stairwell community. What I do remember is that my mom had been concerned about race relations in the U.S. and did not necessarily want to return to Georgia. With the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., her level of fear increased significantly. What we saw on TV or heard on the radio was through AFN, which tried to stay very neutral on the subject of race relations and focused just on the event. While we lived in our own small military community with some reasonable neighborly greetings and dinners, the pictures from back in the states made everyone uncomfortable.”
Swida said the institutional racism she encountered during her childhood in rural Georgia was hard to understand.
“One of my most striking memories when I was very young, about 5 and just learning to read words, was in a small department store and it had those two water fountains with one saying ‘colored’ over it,” Swida said. “I read it and asked my mother what it meant — why there were two. She shook her head and said, ‘I sincerely do not know.’ I did not understand it then and I do not understand it now, but I know how we grew up out in the country. Everybody was just everybody. Color was not an issue.”
Etheridge said at the time of King’s assassination, teachers at his school made an effort to help students understand what had happened.
“I remember in school that the teacher talked about the personal tragedy of his assassination and our need to continue to see each other as part of our community; no matter what our background or our parents’ concerns. I have strived to live my life that way ever since.”
News of King’s assassination sparked riots in more than 100 cities. That was not the case in Liberty County, according to an April 11 editorial in the Liberty County Herald in which it was noted there were no incidents — apart from a “local” car getting shot at by snipers in Chatham County.
“(Local) citizens have received the praise of the Hinesville Police Department for staying within the bounds of the law,” the editorial said, while offering a lukewarm assessment of Dr. King.
“Although we have never agreed with his methods of seeking more freedom for the people of his race, we still must respect his dedication to his cause.”
It ran alongside a column by Sen. Herman Talmadge and another by Sid Williams in which Williams called the Rev. King a “communist sympathizer” and leader of a movement that caued violence.
The Liberty Herald editorial a week after King’s death began by labeling it “a dastardly act,” yet in the next paragraph said, “We do not intend to eulogize Dr. King nor to add anything which would make a martyr of him.”
The Herald editorial went on to proclaim that “thinking people” of “both races” should know “violence will only be met by violence,” and called for understanding.
“It is time for serious thought,” the editorial said. “It is time for responsible persons to step forward and create a sound peace.”
For Lovette, at least, half a century later there’s apparently still more than enough room for that “serious thought.” But he didn’t sound optimistic Tuesday.
“It was never my wildest dream to have to explain racism to my grandchildren,” he said. “It was never my wildest dream to find white youth indoctrinated and practicing racism and hate in 2018. At this point, it is my firmest belief that racism will always be with us.”
So how would King see the United States now?
“I think Dr. King would be highly disappointed,” Lovette said. “As has been said, the laws may be on the books but if the ‘heart’‘ never changes then we have not progressed. Just look at today’s society. All it took was for someone in the White House to challenge the flow of racial harmony and latent racists feel like that is a green light to be open with their racist ideas.”
What are your memories of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.