FERGUSON, Missouri -- Gwendolyn Diggs has vivid memories of the days that followed the assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, 47 years ago. She was “clean, well-dressed, and hair-pressed” at 8 years old, living on Brown Avenue in a small white, four-room frame house with her mother, father and five siblings. They lived in one of Memphis’ black neighborhoods, just six miles northeast of the Lorraine Motel on Mulberry Street, where King was gunned down on a balcony. The entire Diggs family was already home for the evening when, at 6:01 p.m., a single shot fatally wounded King and set off violent civil unrest across the city and the nation.
“I remember my father saying, ‘You all need to lie on the floor and don’t make noise or sounds,’” said Diggs, a now 54-year-old public schools administrator in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. As Diggs' father issued the warning to his wife and his four boys and two girls, who were obediently lying on the floor of the kitchen area, a space furthest from the front and back doors, there was commotion outside.
“We could hear people running through our backyard,” said Diggs, remembering how the evening unfolded. There were pulls at their front door, screams and “acting out” happening on or near Brown Avenue, Diggs said. “Talk about post-traumatic stress.”
Change -- At A Cost
For Diggs and many African-American families with roots in the racially segregated, Jim Crow South, King was the man who had successfully brought black grievances before the country’s highest powers, held meetings in the White House and pushed national legislation that would forever change the relationship people of color have with their government. His assassination challenged thousands of young Americans, black and white, to consider how they could honor his personal sacrifices by using their own lives as a force for positive change. Recalling a time when the country ached from poor race relations and deep socio-economic disparities, Diggs and others who lived through his assassination said they believe the racial progress since King’s death teeters on whether younger generations will remember that the successes of King and others came at a great cost.
As the chief learning officer for the Ferguson-Florissant School District that serves the community where riots were sparked last year by the police killing of Michael Brown, a black and unarmed 18-year-old, Diggs wondered if her students were experiencing the same kind of turmoil that gripped the nation after King's death. “When [civil unrest] first happened in Ferguson, I did have vivid flashbacks of what happened when I was 8,” she said. “What do we say about history? It’s doomed to repeat itself.”
Last month, Diggs accompanied several area students on a trip to the U.S. Capitol and to Alabama for educational forums at the Department of Education and for a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The bridge in Selma was the site of a historic march led 50 years ago by King, prompting passage of the national Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“There can be good that comes out of bad,” said Diggs, referring to Brown’s death. “I want our students to know how rich this time is for them. Their time is now, to get the education and to be role models for students that are coming after them.”
King was shot dead on the evening of April 4, 1968, while he stood on a second-floor balcony outside of his room at the Lorraine Motel, a site that has since become the National Civil Rights Museum. News of the civil rights icon’s assassination prompted outbreaks of racial violence, resulting in more than 40 deaths nationwide and property damage in more than 100 U.S. cities, according to several scholarly accounts of the events.
King had traveled to Tennessee a few days earlier to support Memphis’ local sanitation workers, who were striking over low wages and working conditions. On the evening before his death, King delivered the famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. “I've seen the promised land,” King told an overflowing church crowd. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."
The following evening, King was leaving his hotel for dinner with a colleague when an assassin, later identified as 40-year-old escaped fugitive James Earl Ray, ﬁred a single shot that caused severe wounds to the lower right side of King's face, according to one account. King’s aides rushed to his side, famously pointing across the street toward the building from where the shot seemed to have come. Despite undergoing emergency surgery, King was pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Hospital at 7:05 p.m., just an hour after he was wounded.
Riots spread quickly through Memphis. Then-Gov. Buford Ellington requested 4,000 National Guard troops to protect the city, fearing race riots that had erupted in several U.S. cities in the preceding years. A curfew was imposed, but there was still looting, burglary and other illegal conduct, according to a report in the New York Times.
Police made 60 arrests. There were reports that unidentified individuals had shot at the police from rooftops and windows, wounding two officers with flying glass. Numerous minor injuries were also reported in the four hours of clashes between residents and police. But the unrest was under control by 11:15 p.m., police officials told the media.
'I Started Asking Why'
Avery Williams, 72, a native of Gaston, Alabama, was dispatched to Selma in the early 1960s to work with King as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. By the time King was killed, Williams had already relocated to St. Louis in search of work. He said King’s greatest attribute was his role as a spiritual leader to participants in the civil rights movement, something Williams said is lacking in modern movements today.
“We need some spiritual leadership -- not only political,” said Williams, who has lived near Ferguson for the last 50 years and is now retired from a career in hotel security. “[King] was a spiritual soul and he did things with God in mind. There will never be another Dr. King. But there are more like him who haven’t come to the forefront yet.”
Gerald Higginbotham, 57, a native of Los Angeles, celebrated his 10th birthday three days before King’s assassination. “It was like a torch had come through the television,” he remembered. “I started asking why. ‘Why would you kill him?’ And I said I’d find out why.”
Higginbotham, who is black, grew up and became a career commercial pilot for American Airlines, while building an economic empowerment and spiritual organization dedicated to the history and experience of American slaves and their descendants. King was “the ultimate slave leader,” Higginbotham said.
“King told the world that the next battle was on the economic battlefield,” he said. “It’s my turn and it’s my time now to move forward and to get us back on track. As pilots we say, ‘If you’re one degree off course, you’re not going to arrive at your destination.’”
Diggs said remembering how King’s life ended has caused her to assess her professional commitments and consider the sacrifices that she is willing to make for positive change. The Ferguson-Florissant School District could lose its state accreditation if progress isn't made soon on academic proficiency, attendance and other aspect of student conduct. “I think about what it meant for him to never give up and never quit,” said Diggs, who is married and raised three now adult and college-educated children. “There’s not much time. You just keep on moving until” reaching the goal.
“I was once asked, ‘What are you going to do? What is your contribution?’” Diggs said of a recent encounter with a civil rights scholar who lectured some of her students. “That hit me like a ton of bricks. I definitely want to make sure that I further the causes that [civil rights] pioneers fought for with their lives.”