'How can this be?' Berkshire County recalls Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination 50 years ago

By Heather Bellow, The Berkshire Eagle When it happened, Dennis Powell was learning to be a chef at the Culinary Institute of America in New Haven, Conn., after coming out of the military. “I couldn’t even go to school,” said Powell, president of the the NAACP’s Berkshire branch. “I went and sat on the green across the street from Yale.

I just sat there totally stunned. I remember just feeling lifeless.” And so it was for many upon learning that the Rev.

Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death in Memphis, Tenn., after he had gone there to support striking garbage workers who were subjected to horrific working conditions and abysmal pay. Two months earlier, two garbage men were killed by a truck’s compactor. Striking workers took to the streets and held signs that said, “I am a man.”

There, King gave his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, and was murdered the next day, 50 years ago. Powell said it was the excursion of the great orator’s ministry into broader activism that made him a target. “He was going after labor, and I think it was really that movement and his opposition to Vietnam that put him in that unfortunate position,” he said. “As long as he was just dealing with marches and the South, [he was safe].”

Attorney Leonard Cohen, a Pittsfield native, said that, as a college student, he sat next to King when they were inducted into the Scarlet Key Honor Society at Boston University, where King was studying at the School of Theology. Cohen said it was this venture into what affected the rights of whites, as well African-Americans, that made his legacy. “He brought two communities closer together,” Cohen said.

Carol Siegel, a counseling psychologist who worked in Pittsfield Schools for many years, said she, too felt “depleted, devastated” on the day of the assassination. She had just had her second child. “I was at home, and my reaction was, `Oh, my God, this is it, we’re done.'”

Siegel said it sparked a feeling of uncontrollable social and political upheaval, especially combined with two other assassinations that decade: the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and then of Sen. Robert F.

Kennedy, two months after King was killed. Former Eagle and Boston Globe editor Donald MacGillis said there was instability on many fronts “whipsawing people back and forth,” particularly since President Lyndon B. Johnson had just announced that he wouldn’t run for re-election, as the Vietnam War doomed his chances.

MacGillis now serves as chairman of The Eagle’s advisory board. “There was a sense that the wheels were coming off the whole country,” said MacGillis, who had, at that time, just learned that he was eligible for the draft. “The only hopeful thing was Bobby Kennedy’s Indianapolis speech that calmed everybody down.” Kennedy announced King’s death on that occasion, saying it was a blow to “people who love peace all over the world.”

Race riots around the country followed, MacGillis said. And so did student protests, which Matthew Tannenbaum, owner of The Bookstore in Lenox, remembers, when he was editor of his college newspaper, the American University Eagle in Washington. Tannenbaum was getting the biweekly Eagle ready for the next morning’s edition when the news came in and he cleared a space on the front page.

“I drove to campus in the morning, and all 500 copies were still lying around because the campus had been taken over by protest,” he said. “I knew that something had changed irredeemably.” Michael Forbes Wilcox said he was a college student in Springfield when, in summer 1968, there was a civil rights march. “The mayor called out the National Guard, earning him the eternal enmity of the black community,” said Wilcox, who lives in Alford. “I remember standing on State Street, watching the marchers, with soldiers lining the street.

I started crying, thinking, ‘How can this be? in my city.’ I was connected with the black community, and the idea of there being violence was incomprehensible to me, but fears were roused by riots in other cities. It made me realize how out of touch [with each other] the white and black communities were.” Indivisible Pittsfield organizer Drew Herzig was a high school freshman in California when King was killed.

“I wore a black armband to school that day,” he said. “I felt I needed to do something.” In his Memphis speech, King said “either we go up together or we go down together,” and called for the development of “a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” Siegel said she is seeing glimmers of this now in today’s young people — it reminds her of the high school and college students who protested after King’s murder.

Siegel recounts the violent Charlottesville, Va., riots sparked by white nationalists last year, a movement that critics say was stirred during President Donald Trump’s campaign. “It seems like the current administration scratched an underbelly,” she said. “I wonder if I was as discouraged [in 1968] as I am right now.” Powell worries about this, citing weak action by the nation’s leaders over the years in the realm of equality, particularly with regard to education, which he said is “criminal.”

“I think if [King] was alive today, he wouldn’t be having a dream,” Powell said. “After 50 years, one would think that it should have been a reality — people should be living the reality of the dream, not still talking about the dream.” Heather Bellow can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871 If you’d like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us[1].

We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form[2] and submitting it to the newsroom.

References

  1. ^ email us (www.berkshireeagle.com)
  2. ^ filling out our letters form (docs.google.com)

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