Martin Luther King Jr.’s life came to a tragic end on this day 50 years ago.
The legendary civil rights leader is being remembered today around the world as a fighter for race equality and the rights of poor people of all colors. While his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, touched off a week-long spree of rioting in several cities nationwide, most Americans quietly mourned the man and found in themselves the resolve to do what they could to continue his battle against injustice.
Pictured: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a photo taken on June 30, 1963. (Allyn Baum/The New York Times)
Below are the memories of 10 people who deeply felt the impact of King’s loss, and who today continue to draw inspiration from his legacy.
When Liz Getz packed up her guitar and headed to Atlanta in 1967, her substantial musical resume already included several complimentary performances at civil rights events throughout the Capital Region.
That didn’t change when she headed South, but within a year of leaving her Rotterdam home, Getz’s Civil Rights involvement reached a whole new level. On April 9, 1968, just five days after King was assassinated while standing outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Getz found herself a few feet from King’s family and his casket as his funeral procession made its way from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta to Morehouse College, King’s alma mater, three miles away.
A 1961 Schalmont High graduate, Getz was working as a secretary at General Electric in the early 1960s but was also developing quite a following musically. She was a regular on the old WRGB-TV show, “Teen Age Barn,” played regularly around upstate New York and New England, and recorded some of her own songs, now in possession of the Smithsonian, with a major label at the time: Folkways Records. She built a new following in the Atlanta area, and in 1973 sang the national anthem for the Atlanta Falcons during their first-ever appearance on Monday Night Football.
“I was playing music and working as a secretary in Atlanta, so I took a personal day to go to the funeral march. What happened was very interesting. I noticed in the newspaper this ad that said if you were an entertainer, you should go down to this room at the Marriot, and you would take a bus to where they would drop you off near the front of the parade. I decided I would do it and thought I would run into some of the other musicians from the Atlanta area that I knew. I went to the room, knocked on the door, and who do you think opened it? Diana Ross. She was very sweet and polite. She invited me in, and all these other celebrities — like Sammy Davis Jr. and Harry Belafonte — were there. I was one of just three white people in the room. The other two were Paul Newman and Robert Culp, who was there with Bill Cosby because they were making that TV show [I Spy] together.
“We all got on the bus and got dropped off right after the family. Dick Gregory was there, and we all sang ‘We Shall Overcome.’ I was walking behind Ray Charles, and he turned his head back to me and said, ‘sing it baby.’ It was just a wonderful experience, and the amazing thing was that all through Atlanta, the city remained peaceful the whole time. There were no riots or anything like that.
“The black churches made sure that the population was in mourning, not in anger. Most of the white people just stayed away. I ended up getting dismissed from my job because my boss didn’t think taking a day off to attend Dr. King’s funeral was a good idea. But for years in Schenectady and Atlanta, I did what I could with my voice and my guitar to promote equality. I did support Andrew Young in his first congressional race back in the day, and I sang at a house party for him. If I got asked by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the NAACP to perform I would do it. I just did what I could.”
Ken Screven worked for WRGB/CBS 6 as a news reporter for 34 years before retiring in 2011. A Queens native, he now lives in Albany’s Center Square.
“I was in my senior year at Archbishop Molloy High School in Briarwood, Queens. My brother and I were just two of 17 black students in the all-boys school of 2,000 students. When the news of Dr. King’s murder penetrated the calm of the Screven home in Hollis, Queens, my family was plunged into deep anger and anguish over the death of this great man. Dr. King represented a sense of order and hope that my parents were counting on to help stabilize race relations in America. It was a terrible and grotesque blow that this man of peace was too much for racist America.
“But it was an encounter the next day that continues to haunt me 50 years later. I took the bus to a subway stop in Jamaica Queens, where I met up with the girl I was taking to my senior prom, Andrea Jones. She attended the Mary Louis Academy, an all-girl private school in which she was also one of the few black students. We saw each other that morning, and she began to cry as we talked about Dr. King’s murder. At that very moment, we overheard students from our schools, white students, who stated loudly that they were glad Dr. King had been murdered. Andrea looked at me, having also heard the comment, and she began to cry even harder. We both understood that while we were experiencing a life of relative privilege, it did not insulate us from overt racism.
“Even the death, the murder of this great man was not being mourned that morning by everyone. In fact, Dr. King was not the heralded figure he is today in the homes of many whites in 1960s America. King’s deification has taken 50 years to achieve. But on the morning after his murder, I witnessed the hard truths of how he was hated, even in death. I never got over hearing those words.”
Paul Murray is now professor of sociology emeritus at Siena College who once participated in a King-led march.
“When telling friends about my experiences in the Civil Rights Movement, I proudly say, ‘I marched with Martin Luther King.’
“Of course, I was just one of 125,000 people streaming down Woodward Avenue in Detroit on June 23, 1963, in the ‘Walk to Freedom.’ I was an 18-year-old student at the University of Detroit and this was my first civil rights demonstration. Two weeks earlier President Kennedy announced he was sending a major civil rights bill to Congress. Dr. King had just won a major victory over Bull Connor’s police dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham. It was an optimistic time. Victory over Jim Crow seemed just around the corner.
“Only a small portion of the massive crowd could cram inside Cobo Arena to hear King’s oration in person. The rest of us gathered on the streets outside, listening over the public address system. When King counseled, ‘There are some good white people in this country who are as determined to see the Negro free as we are to be free,’ I felt he was referring to me. As his rhetoric rose to a powerful conclusion, he repeated a litany of images, each beginning with the phrase, ‘I have a dream.’ Two months later, at the March on Washington, the rest of the nation was riveted as King repeated these immortal words.
Paul Murray, in the striped shirt, holds a protest sign during a 1963 march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Detroit, left, and Murray today. (Photos provided)
“On the evening of April 4, 1968, I was reviewing for an upcoming exam at Florida State University’s Catholic Student Center. A priest on the center’s staff burst into the room and cried out, ‘Martin Luther King’s been killed in Memphis.’
“I was staggered by his news. I struggled to find words to express my feelings. While many people responded to his assassination with justifiable rage, I was numb with grief. Reverend McCullough, 93-year-old black minister who was my host the summer I worked in rural Mississippi, told me God protected Martin Luther King because he was doing the Lord’s work.
“Now I pondered many questions: Had God deserted Dr. King? Had God abandoned America? What will become of our nation without King’s moral leadership? The road ahead seemed bleak indeed.
“I had witnessed too many funerals — Medgar Evers gunned down outside his Mississippi home; John F. Kennedy assassinated in Dallas; Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi; Malcolm X slain in Harlem; each week the death toll in Vietnam mounting higher.
“When would the killings end? As riots raged in more than 100 cities, the possibility of racial reconciliation seemed more distant than ever before.
“I was too stunned to shed any tears for our fallen leader, but that night I silently pledged to continue working to create Martin Luther King’s vision of the beloved community where liberty and justice for all would be a reality, not a hollow slogan.”
Shireen Ali, a longtime Air Force assistant chaplain, is a teaching assistant for Capital Region BOCES and works at Maywood School in Colonie.
“I remember the loving but haunting picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. … placed on the living room wall of my grandmother’s house in Havre de Grace, Maryland.
Mrs. James Cunningham plays guitar and helps lead singing during a memorial service for slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that was held at the Union College Memorial Chapel on Sunday, April 7, 1968. (Gazette file photo)
“It was a very trying year in 1968 because Dr. King and Senator Robert Kennedy were both assassinated. Later, the picture of King was expanded to include President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert. I knew that picture as the Three Kings. Many places I visited during that time had the picture of those three brave men placed on their walls. Whenever I heard the late Dr. King’s voice on radio or television, it made me aware that we lost someone very important, that guided us toward equality in my lifetime. It was very disheartening for me.
“Many years later, I went to Montgomery, Alabama, to attend the Air Force Chaplain Service Institute. I was preparing for my military career as a chaplain assistant. I visited the Montgomery Civil Rights Memorial Center, and additionally I visited the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church where Dr. King led his congregation from 1954-1962. My strongest experience of remembering Dr. King was being able to stand at the pulpit where he preached from in his church. It was a great spiritual connection for me because I was a Muslim woman in the U.S. Military, and I was able to wear my hijab (scarf) with the military uniform. I was getting ready to help other service members and their families exercise the right to worship God in their own faith.
“I am thankful to God for having knowledge about the living work of Martin Luther King Jr. I had to draw on the strength of my religious educational training and the true meaning of Islam, which tells us to love and serve humanity. I needed my military training as a chaplain assistant to help work at Ground Zero, the most difficult assignment that I performed in my military career. It didn’t matter what faith group anyone belonged to. I appreciate all the kind and loving people that have entered into my life and showed me patience, kindness and courage. Having God, all the great prophets — brave and courageous people like Dr. King — have made a big difference for me.”
Shirley A. McMurray
Schenectady resident McMurray shares a memory from her father, the late William McMurray — that includes a humorous twist.
“What I’m sending is not my own recollection but the recollection of my late father.
“My dad, William McMurray, was a long-time, well-respected employee at General Electric — an electrical engineer his entire career. He was a soft-spoken man who never said very much to his children about his early life and younger self (I have three siblings).
“So imagine my surprise, when for the first time at 70 years old, Dad told me how he knew Martin Luther King Jr.
Left, Mrs. Robert L. Stone, center, with Mr. and Mrs. R. H. Norris marched for Dr. Martin Luther King in spring 1968. Right, Rev. Anthony R. Perrino of the First Unitarian Society, front left, and Schenectady Mayor Malcolm E. Ellis, right, led a procession down Liberty Street from Union College to City Hall on April 7, 1968. (Gazette file photos)
“I was blown over when he said that he, at age 21, and MLK, at age 22, were in the same basic training unit in the Army back in the spring of 1951.
“I wish Dad was still here to tell you his story. Unfortunately, he died Dec. 25, 2006, at age 77. When going through Dad’s desk drawers, we found a piece of his correspondence (a copy he kept).
“In 1986, Dad had read a ‘Q-and-A’ item in Walter Scott’s column in Parade Magazine referring to MLK. Scott answered a question about King’s military service by saying, ‘As an ordained minister, Dr. King was granted an exemption from military service.’
“Dad then responded with a letter to Mr. Scott:
‘Your answer in Parade regarding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and military service may be correct, but is not the whole story. He went through U.S. Army basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., in the spring of 1951.
‘I know this for sure — we lived in the same barracks. He was my squad leader. Being the tallest guy in the squad, I marched right behind him.
After basic training, I believe he returned to civilian life. Anyway, I also was born in 1929 and one of the first to march with Martin Luther King.'”
Agnes Kerley is a retired state worker who lives in West Fulton in Schoharie County.
“I distinctly remember where I was and what I was doing on that fateful night when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. My mother, brother and I were sitting in the living room of our house in Brooklyn, watching an episode of ‘Bewitched.’ The show was interrupted by a bulletin announcing the tragic news. My mother, who was visibly shaken and upset, jumped from her chair when the phone rang. My aunt had called to share her grief over the awful events of that night.
“During the ensuing days, I learned so much about Dr. King and the struggles he faced in bringing about long-overdue changes in the way African-Americans were treated in our country. I saw the film clips of the fire hoses being turned on protesters, listened to interviews of people who recounted their stories of harsh and brutal treatment by whites, saw photos of the separate water fountains in the segregated South. The most painful thing to watch, however, was the sight of his grieving widow and children on the day of his funeral. My childhood changed forever after that. I was no longer content to watch inane TV shows and instead developed a thirst for knowledge about this amazing man and his quest for equality for all. All these years later, he remains my hero, and I look to him as a model for what I desire to be as a human being.
“MLK took a very big risk and was martyred for it. Whenever I fear speaking out against anything that is unjust, I think of his courage and lift my chin and forge ahead.”
Wanda Fischer, who grew up in Boston, has been host of WAMC’s “Hudson River Sampler” since 1982.
People crowd steps of Schenectady’s City Hall and sing “America the Beautiful” after a memorial service for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Gazette file photo)
“I was 19 years old when I packed myself off to the University of Tennessee, where football was king and fraternities and sororities worshiped at the throne. I was hopelessly out of place, since I had no interest in becoming homogenized as a “southern lady,” and instead became involved in social change organizations, particularly the Highlander Center, located just outside Knoxville. ‘Communists,’ my house mother told me. ‘You should stay away from them.’
“Dr. King was on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel when he was killed. I remember that night as if it were yesterday — not 50 years ago — as if I were still in that dorm room at Sophronia Strong Hall at the University of Tennessee. No cellphone, no TV, no internet. Only a radio, surrounded by people who told me, ‘It was inevitable. He was asking for it. It’s only too bad it had to happen in Tennessee.’
“Twenty years ago, I made my first trip to the Civil Rights Museum, located in the Lorraine Motel. The exhibitions became progressively more intense, and before I knew it, I was standing on the balcony where he was shot. I became a blithering idiot. I began crying inconsolably, just like the African American maid in Sophonia Strong Hall had done when she heard the news 50 years ago. Her name was Hazel, and she was a wonderful person. She came into my room and cried back then, I think, because she suspected the Southern ladies who lived in the dorm wouldn’t allow it and would have told her to just get back to work. Heaven help her had the dorm mother seen it.
“I never realized my dream of meeting Dr. King in person, but I saw his face on Saturday, March 24, (2018), when young people marched and told our leaders that enough is enough, that their lives are more valuable than guns. He said, ‘I may not get there with you … keep on marching.’ That’s what they did. Fifty years later, my heart remains heavy. I cannot — will not — forget what he lived and died for.”
Clifton Park resident Andrew Hugos remembers the King and Kennedy shootings.
“Television programming on April 4, 1968, was interrupted to announce that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot in Memphis, Tennessee.
“This shocking news brought me back to a time five years earlier when we lived in Midland, Texas and our principal made a similar announcement that President John F. Kennedy had died that day in Dallas.
“In June 1968 we were getting ready to go to school when my mother came upstairs to tell us Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in California the night before.
“Although life went on, these events were harrowing to live through. I will always be grateful to Dion DiMucci for writing and performing a simple, yet uplifting song, ‘Abraham, Martin and John.’ His words and music helped us to reflect on the lives and sacrificed of people who, though flawed, endeavored to help create a better world for all.
“Being reminded of all he tried to achieve helped protect us from lapsing into cynicism. Dr. King made an important distinction between being rich and famous and being great by pointing out that a life of service affords each of us the opportunity to be great.
“‘Everybody can be great,’ he said, ‘because anybody can serve … you only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.’
“During the spring of 1963, President Kennedy expressed a similar sentiment when he reminded a crowd gathered in El Paso, Texas, ‘This nation was not built by those who stayed in their own area to look after their private interests.’
“After successfully leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King could have lived a comfortable life as a prominent pastor in Alabama, yet he heard a call to press on to end segregation in the entire south and also to address inequality and economic suffering in the North.
Mourners at the Union College service hold hands and remember Dr. King. (Gazette file photo)
“When he brought his housing campaign to Chicago, he told an audience that his only ambition was to achieve excellence in his ministry rather than to hold office or gain wealth. He believed the path to such excellence was the best method to promote both progress and healing.
“He knew that hatred victimizes the hated and imprisons the hater. He understood the power of action guided by love to change our world and touch the hearts that beat in every human being. His labor on behalf of all humanity was to advocate for the poor and oppressed and to change souls trapped by tragic judgments and attitudes. Dr. King’s words and deeds taught me that African Americans have always kept faith with the American dream through every hardship.
“African-Americans have vigorously defended and loved our country while also challenging us to live out ‘the true meaning of our creed.’ In this regard, I often think of our own Henry Johnson, a Medal of Honor winner and patriot. The leadership of great Americans such as Dr. King, Henry Johnson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Sojourner Truth and many others have lifted the sights of white Americans of every heritage and faith to fully enjoy our citizenship and receive the gifts of diversity and community.
“Thinking about dreams dreamed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy and so many others reminds me that leaders are the servants of all. To honor leaders who have given their all, I try to live each day with gratitude and thanksgiving. When I start to get down or feel sorry for myself, I remember the gifts they bestowed on our great country and our world so that we who live today have so much freedom and opportunity to live for. By Dr. King’s legacy of peace, love and understanding, I am richly blessed. He richly blessed us all.”
Mary B. McClaine
Mary B. McClaine remembers her visit to King’s grave site.
“I was a young adult when Rev. King started his marches. My values had already been formed in Catholic grade school, Catholic high school and from my Italian immigrant parents. My siblings and I — seven of us — were not exposed to biases. We were taught to accept everybody.
“As children we walked home every day for lunch with our African-American classmates. In high school, my African-American classmates were athletes, popular and well-liked.
“I had an experience that perhaps most people in the Capital District never had. My husband was a General Electric employee. During his employment, he was sent to Atlanta, Georgia, for a temporary assignment.
“I accompanied him on the trip. While he was at work, I took advantage of the daily city tours offered to visitors. One of the tours was a trip to the Martin Luther King grave site. It was an unusual setting.
“The coffin is entombed in a sarcophagus that rests on a pedestal and is surrounded by an islet. To the left of the tomb is a gift shop and the Ebenezer Baptist Church is on the right. Visitors tour the church and can see the pulpit where Rev. King preached.
“The day I was there, there was a notice posted on the front door of the church. It read, ‘No food today.’ I was taken aback. If there ever was a church to be at the ready to feed the hungry, it should be Rev. King’s church.
“I hope it was a one-time occurrence and that the church now fills the needs of the hungry every day in their community.
Rabbi Jonathan Rubenstein
As a teenager, Rabbi Jonathan Rubenstein once attended a family dinner party in which Martin Luther King Jr. was a guest of honor.
“This event was a ceremony at my dad’s synagogue, Temple Israel in Westport, Connecticut.
“It was a whole weekend of activity …. there was a Friday evening service, a Saturday morning service and there was a banquet Saturday night. The speaker Friday night was Martin Luther King. The speaker Saturday was Gene McCarthy.
“It was May of 1964. My parents, particularly my father but my mother as well, were very involved in the Civil Rights Movement pretty early on.
Rabbi Jonathan Rubenstein, with the program autographed by Martin Luther King Jr. on May 22, 1964. (Erica Miller)
“We came to Westport in 1959 and and fairly quickly my dad became kind of a leader in progressive causes there. Later in the ’60s he became an anti-Vietnam War activist. For the March on Washington in 1963, my parents brought a group from our synagogue, including our whole family to the march, where the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech was given.
“This was a big part of my teenage years and it also was a big part of the Judaism I was brought up with. To be a Jew is to be involved in social justice work and that was as important as the ritual aspects of Judaism and the practices of Judaism, in fact they went together.
“In May of 1964, we had a big event at the synagogue so I would have turned 15 that summer. I was 14 years old.
“There was this big weekend of celebration. It was a re-dedication ceremony for the synagogue building, fifth anniversary, and Dr. King was the speaker Friday evening.
“It was a very big event. Westport was a very homogeneous community, a pretty wealthy white community, not much in the way of minority population. Norwalk, which is the next city over, was a much more diverse city, economically and racially. As I recall, my father had collegial relations with some of the black clergy. He had already been involved in some local civil rights marches and demonstrations in Norwalk and probably Bridgeport and other places like that.
“They were invited, they were on the dais, colleagues from the area, the churches were invited, too. It was an unusually mixed group of people at a suburban synagogue.
“My personal recollection is that whenever we had a speaker at the synagogue for a Friday evening service, it was sort of customary that they had dinner at our home before the service, which was at 9 o’clock.
“I remember we were having quite a crowd at our house. Many people were invited and somebody had driven up a station wagon with folding chairs to bring in. Our house was a parsonage so it was built on the grounds of the synagogue.
“As I was out there, I remember being by myself getting these chairs out of the car. Dr. King walked up the driveway with his entourage because he always traveled with other civil rights people. He just came up to me and introduced himself — as if he needed to — shook my hand and I kind of escorted him into the house. it was kind of a big blur after that.
“But he did greet my parents and other guests who who were in the living room. Then walked straight through our living room and dining room and into the kitchen to greet the catering staff, who were all African-American.
“This was very unusual, the catering. My mother was a great entertainer and a great cook and usually she did it by herself, But this was a big deal so they had brought in some help. He schmoozed with them for a while and that really impressed me. It impressed them a great deal.
“That was his modus operandi. He always made a point of doing that.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. outside the courthouse in Montgomery, Alabama, during the Montgomery bus boycotts, March 20, 1956. (George Tames/The New York Times)
Martin Luther King Jr. Day events
Events in Saratoga Springs and Albany tonight will remember the civil rights leader’s assassination on April 4, 1968 — 50 years ago.
“Honor King: End Racism,” a silent march and vigil, will begin at 5:30 p.m. in Saratoga Springs.
Sponsored by MLK Saratoga, several social justice groups and the interfaith community, marchers will gather in front of the City Center and proceed down Broadway in silence. The will carry signs that read “Honor King: End Racism.”
Participants also will gather in Congress Park; church bells will ring at 6:05 p.m., the time King was shot in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.
Songs from the civil rights era and King’s words will be part of the program.
The 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. will be held tonight from 6 until 8 p.m. at Greater St. John’s COGIC (Church of God in Christ), 74 4th Ave., Albany.
The event will be sponsored by the Capital District Area Labor Federation. Doors open at 5:30 p.m.; the event is free and open to the public.