Editorial: Statement still echoes
Forty years ago Friday, the nation reeled from the news that an assassin had killed civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he stood on a motel balcony in Memphis.
In black communities across the nation, the rage was immediate and violent. Even though President Lyndon Johnson called for Americans to “reject the blind violence” which had killed the “apostle of nonviolence,” riots broke out in 60 cities.
In Salisbury, 750 Livingstone College students and faculty members decided to make a statement instead.
The morning after King’s death, the large group silently marched from the campus to the Rowan County Courthouse, carrying signs pleading for peace and justice in the world. The somber procession drew the attention of shoppers and clerks as it moved down Main Street. Then the marchers gathered on the courthouse steps. Here’s an excerpt about what followed from the Salisbury Post of April 5, 1968:
“We are all Americans,” the Rev. Robert Clayton, a Livingstone professor, said. “We are not here to riot but to proclaim our belief in the ideals (of Martin Luther King). We will not throw bricks, but we will throw ballots.” He urged wholesale voter registration “in the name of Martin Luther King.” …
The problem, Clayton said, is with the conservative white man. He called on the liberal whites to work with their fellowman. “When you can show us you can win the conservative white man,” he said, “we will believe you.”
The Livingstone march was a wise and noble act. The students could have found no better way to underscore King’s message of nonviolence than to act it out in person ó in contrast to the angry reactions that played out in other cities. The students and the city learned a lesson that day, and they carried it with them in the years that followed.
Salisbury is a different place today than it was in 1968, but the themes Clayton touched on are as relevant as ever. There are renewed efforts to register more voters, such as the Rock the Vote event Monday at Livingstone. The nation could have a black candidate on the presidential ballot this fall ó a man running for the whole country, not one part of the color spectrum. Slowly but surely, those who oppose discrimination and prejudice have brought about change through the ballot box.
Meanwhile, what about the conservative white man? Politically, conservatives thrived through the 1980s and 1990s, and nowhere are they more at home than in Rowan County. The most hard-core among them still use slurs and practice discrimination. But many others ó most ó have seen the error in the old, white-vs.-black ways.
The young people who marched down Main Street in ’68 are about 60 years old now. As the nation recalls King’s death tomorrow, they can look back on their reaction to the tragedy with pride. In the heat of the moment, they lived out King’s example ó and probably are still doing so today.