Americans take the third Monday in January every year to celebrate the birthday of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. However, for many, a more dramatic day of remembrance is April 4, the day of his assassination in 1968. However, most people younger than 50 have little or no personal recollection of events leading up to or following King’s death.
Martin Luther King was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta. He managed to enter Morehouse College at 15, after skipping the 9th and 12th grades, according to the Louisiana State University Libraries. In 1955, he earned a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston University and, like his father, became a minister. Dozens of honorary degrees followed.
King will always be recognized as a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement. He was arrested 30 times for participating in civil rights activities and served as both a founder and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was also president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, a group linked to the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott. Among his many public appearances, his “I Have a Dream” speech is the most vivid to those who witnessed the events of the 1960s. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
The civil rights leader was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis when James Earl Ray shot and killed him, says ABC News. The event sparked riots and other civil disturbances just two years before protests and shutdowns of college campuses over the war in Vietnam.
April 4, 1968 proved to be an eerie day and one impossible for me to forget. At the exact moment Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, I was picking up pieces of discarded copy paper and preparing to leave a weekly reporting lab at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. I particularly disliked the lab schedule, since by the time I walked back to my residence, the food line for the evening meal was closed.
During that particular four-hour lab, the instructor, a reporter on one of the Chicago dailies, illustrated how newspapers compiled morgue files of prominent people. The idea was to have a skeleton obituary on file and finish filling it in as soon as details of the individual’s death became available. This, he explained, was one of the jobs typically assigned to new reporters.
Each of the 15 or so students in the lab received a name of a public figure and a list of facts about the individual. Still working in the days of manual typewriters, we ended the lab by creating an obituary for a morgue file for our subject, complete with all the carbon copies required for staff review and filing.
By the time I got back at my residence, students were gathered around the television on the main floor, transfixed by the emerging details of the assassination. I was speechless. I had just turned in an obituary for Martin Luther King, Jr.