BY TRONE DOWD
This week marks 50 years since the assassination of revered civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A pioneer who confronted racial, social and economic equality, the once controversial figure is now one of America’s most celebrated.
King raised eyebrows for his progressive values in the south, where he resided and spent most of his time as an activist. His unwavering drive to end segregation and institutionalized racism—but also his great skill as a writer and orator—made him the most prominent activist of his era.
His speeches and texts—such as “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” and “I Have A Dream”—present King’s lofty vision of a nation free from racial tensions, and comment on the unrest that marked the turbulent 1960s in the United States.
Equally as effective were King’s organized protests in Washington, D.C., Selma and Montgomery. From organizing boycotts on buses to marching to the U.S. Capitol, King paired rhetoric with action, a strategy that is replicated to this day.
Shortly before his murder, King had planned to tackle economic inequality in America. He had a plan to assemble a “multiracial army of the poor” to help push for livable wages. It was the next logical step for King’s progressive platform, and he had already created partnerships with unions and other leaders of the working class.
But on April 4, 1968, that dream was cut short in Memphis. King was shot and killed by James Earl Ray on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
In the 50 years since King’s death, his core beliefs have taken on a life of their own. His thoughts on economic inequality continue to resonate with the American public. Despite a resurgence in hate crimes across the nation during the past two years, race relations have arguably improved since the 1960s, particularly in southern states. King’s criticisms of America’s love for gun violence and war remain prescient. And modern movements—such as Black Lives Matter and the recent youth-led March For Our Lives—prove that King’s legacy lives on.
In Southeast Queens, community leaders looked up to King while he was still alive. His death was a moment that has stuck with them years later, and inspired them to take up the fight for equality.
U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica) told the PRESS of Southeast Queens that he was 14 years old when he heard the news of King’s death.
“We were about to watch television when the bulletin came across,” Meeks said. “I’ll never forget the horror and shock, particularly, that I saw in my mother. She said, ‘What is America going to come to?’”
Meeks pointed out that King’s death followed soon after the killing of other civil rights icons, including Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy and Medgar Evers.
“It was tragedy happening all over again,” he said. “At the time, we wondered whether this would put a fear in some of the individuals who wanted to move forward in facing the challenges of 1968.”
However, King became a symbol for the movement, especially for young people.
“He was striving to make America a better place,” Meeks said. “He gave us the blueprint, the spirit and the plan to get to that promised land. He gave us the confidence that we needed in order to get up and make a difference.”
Learning about King’s work and seeing the influence that he had on his parents, Meeks became a member of student government in high school and college. He saw the effectiveness in making a change in his community and turned it into a career.
Manny Caughman, the executive secretary of the Guy R. Brewer United Democratic Club, said that he also remembers the day of King’s assassination, and the impact that it had on him and his peers.
“I personally lived in South Carolina and attended segregated schools,” Caughman said. “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an inspiration to my generation at the time. His teachings of peaceful demonstrations and patience propelled us to the gains we enjoy today.”
Archie Spigner, the executive leader of the Guy R. Brewer club, said that King had a profound influence on his own activism. Spigner led fights against racism in New York City and eventually became the first African American to be elected to the City Council.
“Dr. King inspired the black community in general,” Spigner said. “He was such a magnificent orator who articulated the problems and the struggles of black folks. He continually put his life on the line for our struggles until, unfortunately, it was taken.”
Spigner participated in the 1963 March on Washington, where he heard King recite the historic “I Have A Dream” speech. Spigner said that being a part of that moment made him a lifelong follower of King’s beliefs.
On Wednesday, St. Albans native and Queens Library CEO Dennis Walcott met with youths at the Teen Library in Far Rockaway to discuss the influence that King had on his life.
“I remember exactly where I was that evening,” Walcott said. “I was a junior in high school at the time and I was home. I found out around 7 p.m.”
Walcott said that King was a household name in the Southeast Queens community, influencing many houses of faith and groups of people in the area to fight against inequality.
“I remember him as an organizer, his speeches obviously, and the back and forth,” he said. “People now sometimes romanticize Dr. King as if everyone loved him. Back then, not everyone necessarily liked Dr. King.
People had differing opinions, especially as activism and radicalism around issues grew. I remember the spirited debate that took place between the different factions of the civil rights movement around the issues of equal opportunity and equal rights.”
Walcott said that diving further into King’s work as he grew up made him more aware of his groundbreaking work during the 1950s and 1960s. King’s inspiring words led Walcott to get involved with the National Urban League. He became president of the New York chapter in 1990.
Other city and state leaders shared their thoughts on King’s legacy. Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray commemorated the anniversary at Washington Square Park by playing King’s final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
“He never meant it to be an idea only for that time, for that year—1968,” de Blasio said. “He meant it to be something that would live and grow. He never meant it to be just his dream. It was supposed to be everybody’s, and it required everyday people to stand up and do something. And you being here is a sign of the power of that dream and that that quest continues.”
“His words are alive and speaking to us now,” McCray added. “They are reminding us of our responsibility to take care of one another, of the opportunity that we have to make our city and nation better for all. And they are reminding us that by working together, by collaborating that we have so much more power to make change.”
U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who often marched with King, said that he vividly recalled the day that King died.
“Fifty years ago today, I learned the painful news that my friend, my mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis,” Lewis said. “He was my brother, my leader—that day, it felt like something died in all of us.”