Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King

Dr. Martin Luther King: Struck down at age 39 in 1968.
Dr. Martin Luther King: Struck down at age 39 in 1968.

Wire service telegraph machines had alarms with loud bells that would clang when a major news story broke.

Several of the machines began clanging in the wire machine room in the back of the third floor newsroom of The Roanoke Times and World News on the afternoon of April 4, 1968.

An older man with a bowed spine and a limp took care of the machines and read the bulletin on the Associated Press wire.  He was an avowed racist who hated all people of color and, especially a civil rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King.

“Hot damn!  Somebody shot King,” he yelled.  “It’s a great day in America!”

His joy added to the sting of the news that a then-unknown person with a rifle took King down on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, TN, on a Thursday afternoon.  King was just 39.

News of the shooting came shortly after 7:00 p.m. and the announcement of his death came a little over an hour later.

I grabbed my notebook and my camera bag with a Nikon F, film and lenses, and headed into the streets of Roanoke to capture local reaction of the assassination.

At Texas Tavern on Church Street, reaction ranged from shock to sadness and some delight.  Roanoke was still a city with strong divisions between black and whites. The Times and World News had only recently started publishing photos of black brides in the social sections and the move brought criticism and cancellation.

Protests began along Melrose Avenue and I headed towards a collection of police cars with flashing lights.  Anger spilled out into the streets.  A bottle filled with urine crashed into the sidewalk next to where I was shooting photos.

The protests in Roanoke were smaller and less violent than the ones found in Memphis, Washington, DC, and other cities.  When I got back to the newsroom well after midnight, reporters and photographers were busy putting stories together for the last edition of Friday morning.

We would continue working long hours through the weekend and into the following weeks as the anger and shock brought loud emotions and violent reactions.

An itinerant troublemaker from Alton, Illinois, a Mississippi River town just north of St. Louis, was arrested and charged as the lone gunman who killed King.

I left the Times the following year and took a reporting and photography job in Illinois — at Alton, the birthplace of the man who went to prison after confessing to the murder of the civil rights icon.  It was a coincidence.  The Telegraph was hiring and their starting salary was $55 a week more than the Times paid in those days.

Ray later recanted his confession and claimed he was a “patsy” set up to cover up a conspiracy to kill King.  He claimed the FBI and then director J. Edgar Hoover was involved.  Some of King’s survivors believed him.  He died of hepatitis in 1998 in prison.

Monday, January 18, 2016, is Martin Luther King’s birthday, a federal holiday that comes at the end of a four-day schizophrenic weekend in Virginia where Friday is a Virginia state holiday that honors Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

Floyd County government celebrates both holidays and local employees get both Friday and Saturday off.  Some cities in Virginia — including Charlottesville, Richmond and Lynchburg — do not recognize or celebrate Lee-Jackson Day.

Virginia was one of the last five states to officially recognize Martin Luther King Day and did so in 2000.  In Richmond today, the Virginia General Assembly has a full day of scheduled meetings and a number of groups are in town to lobby the state capital.

The old wire service guy at The Roanoke Times and World News — who cheered, whooped, hollered and danced as best he sould on a bum leg — would be proud of the legislature in Richmond.  The Republican controlled General Assembly is living up to its racist roots.

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