In a daily newspaper city room in the 1960s, the noise of teletype machines provided a background clatter interrupted by clanging bells when a major news event hit the wire services.
Those clangs began on the Associated Press machines in the cubicle of The Roanoke Times and World News newsroom on the third floor of the paper’s building on Campbell Avenue in the early evening of April 4, 1968, not long after I arrived to start my 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift as a reporter and photographer .
The bulletin said someone shot Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. outside his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee. A cheer and “whoop” went up in the teletype room. The old man who tended the machines hated black people and began to celebrate.
Times City Editor Richard “Dick” Hancock didn’t celebrate. He started directing some of us to get out on the streets and gather “man on the street” reactions to a major news story. I drove over to Orange Avenue with my notepad and a Nikon F 35mm camera and found a group of black men watching a small black and white TV behind the counter of a mom and pop food store.
Few noticed as I shot photos and wrote down comments. When word came over the TV that King was pronounced dead at the hospital and a larger crowd gathered in the street.
A Roanoke police car arrived, then another, and tensions built.
A bottle flew through the air and the pop when it landed in the street sounded, to some, like a gunshot.
No actual gunshots followed but the crowd grew, along with the anger. Shouts filled the air. A brick crashed into the windshield of a police cruiser. Rocks pelted police officers. One hit me in the back, another struck my leg.
The protest in Roanoke died not become a riot like the ones around the country, where anger turned violent and deadly. The killing of King brought anger and tensions to the surface and the angry protests left death and destruction in many cities in the days and nights that followed.
On Orange Avenue on the evening of April 4, 1968, I saw the anger and interviewed some who said the nonviolent form of protest that King advocated was not enough. They felt more violence would be necessary and the riots that followed in cities like Washington, Los Angeles, Detroit, Memphis and other locations grew from that belief.
Orange Avenue in Roanoke was tense on that evening of April 4. It threatened to erupt into violence but did not. The protests and marches that followed in Roanoke were, for the most part, peaceful. I interviewed, and photographed, people who cried over the death of a strong man who tried to turn the tide against racism.
A year after that April night in Roanoke, I left the Times and took a new reporting job for The Telegraph in Alton Illinois, a Mississippi River city just north of St. Louis. It was also the birthplace of James Earl Ray, the man convicted of shooting Dr. King in Memphis.
Alton is also home to a monument to Elijah Parish Lovejoy, a newspaper editor killed by a pro-slavery crowd on November 7, 1837, as he was trying to save his newspaper from the mob trying to burn it down. That mob dumped his printing press into the Mississippi River. A piece of it sat in the entrance to The Telegraph offices.
I covered a lot of stories about the racism that still existed in Alton and the surrounding area during my 12 years at The Telegraph. One of those interviews focused on the African American couple who then lived in the house where James Earl Ray, the man convicted of killing Martin Luther King, Jr., was born.
A short time later, an arsonist burned the house down. Thankfully, no one was injured.
In 2008, some thought the election of Barack Obama signalled an end to racism in America. Instead, his election inflamed the hate and bigotry. Racist groups thrived, white supremacists oozed out of the ground and a coalition celebrated last year when they helped propel Donald Trump to the Presidency.
On this proclaimed “national holiday” to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King is observed, we should remember that many county and state employees in Virginia combine today’s recognition with “Lee-Jackson Day,” celebrated last Friday to “honor” the memories of Virginia civil war generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.”
For some in The Old Dominion, the holiday for the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King is nothing more than a reason to celebrate a four-day weekend.
Floyd County Schools closed for Martin Luther King’s Birthday. Many other school systems in Virginia do not.
As Southern born, I do not, and will not, recognize a “holiday” for two Confederate generals who fought against the country that I love. I can, and do, honor the Civil Rights leader who died trying to end racism in America. Sadly, the racism continues, and thrives, to this day.