The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in Memphis in 1968. His tragic death came just as many African Americans were beginning to believe that racial equality and justice, after having been denied for generations, was finally within reach. King’s death caused a leadership crisis in both his passive resistance movement as well as in the personal lives of many African Americans who saw him as a both a spiritual and moral compass.
“I was living in Berryville at St. Mary’s Parrish Hall when I heard the news that he had been shot” said James Ross, dean of students at Johnson Williams Middle School in Berryville. Ross, who lives in Charles Town, West Virginia, has come for a haircut at Paul Jones’s barber shop on Osborne Street in Berryville.
The small, two-barber shop is packed with customers on a recent Friday afternoon.
“I remember a gloomy feeling over the entire community that week.” Ross reminisced “Everything on television was about the killing. People in the black community were very upset. This was the man that was taking us forward and suddenly he was gone.”
“No one since then has stepped up to take his place.”
But while Dr. King is still widely recognized as the catalyst behind the American Civil Rights Movement, some people today believe that his equal-rights legacy may be in peril due to complacency by younger generations. Many Americans today know of Dr. King only through history books and black-and-white news footage taken in the 1960’s. Much of the pain and suffering that made the Civil Rights Movement so real for older Americans is quickly fading from America’s collective memory.
“Dr. King was a great historical figure” said Desmond Newman of Charles Town when asked to describe what Dr. King means to him.
Newman is an under-20 young man sitting in the barber chair receiving a haircut from Jones.
When Jones hears Dr. King referred to as “historical” his eyes widen and he momentarily pauses from the haircut to playfully confront his young customer.
“Historical?” Jones asks feigning incredulity.
Newman quickly recognizes his mistake and soothes Jones’s faux-anger by adding “It’s a privilege to have Mr. Jones cut my hair because he marched with Martin Luther King.”
Of course, Newman and others of his generation today are living in a world where an African American is president of the United States, society has laws banning segregation and many of the institutional relics of discrimination have been removed. Even so, Jones says that a more subtle form of racism is still in place in the United States.
“I worry because, for whatever reason, our kids have the idea that where we are today has nothing to do with how people in authority see us” Jones said while expertly clipping a customer’s hair. “Kids today have choices that their parents didn’t have because of people who fought for those rights. But they don’t seem to be as hungry as their parents were. They’re more willing to settle for less. Our parents weren’t willing to do that.”
In many ways, today’s society is far more equal and color blind than at any time in our past. So perhaps it’s not surprising that today’s younger generation isn’t as focused as much as their parents and grandparents on civil rights. Still, Paul Jones experiences as a young college student who grew up in Berryville remind him of just how difficult equal rights were to win and how easy they can erode if people do not remain vigilant.
“I first heard Dr. King speak at an event at Howard University before Jones left to attend Kittrell Junior College in North Carolina” Jones said. “What an experience that was! I couldn’t believe King’s command of the English language. I was overwhelmed with emotion by the trueness of his speech.”
James Ross remembered Dr. King’s oratory skills similarly.
“One thing that set King apart is that he had “reverend” in front of his name” Ross said. “In those days everything centered around the church; marches, boycotts, everything. The church was a haven for the African American community and we looked at Martin Luther King as a minister first and a leader second. A minister is both a preacher and a storyteller who can speak in a way that makes you confident in what he tells you. Dr. King had that gift.”
But despite today’s historical view of Dr. King’s successful legacy of non-violence, Paul Jones said that at the time not everyone found his philosophy of peace easy to follow.
“Martin Luther King’s message was hard for people our age to accept” Jones said referring to his college years. “It was more exciting to think about picking up a brick. But then we heard King say â€˜We can’t save the soul of this nation throwing bricks. We can’t save the soul of this nation getting our ammunitions and going out shooting physical weapons. We must know that we have something much more powerful. Just take up the ammunition of love.’ That speech made me understand passive resistance.”
But even as Dr. King was urging non-violence Jones said that there were plenty of competing voices on the nation’s campuses lobbying for a more radical and militant approach to demanding equal rights.
“I met Rap Brown and Stokley Carmichael when I was driving around on the back roads of North Carolina and South Carolina helping to set up safe houses for the freedom riders” Jones said. “Several of the freedom riders had been killed and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was trying to provide a safe places for them to stay at night.”
But it was hard to buy into Rap and Stokley because most of us lived in small towns like Berryville, not places like Los Angeles and New York City. People were slow taking up King’s philosophy but once they were convinced they went along with it.”
The Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States to test the 1960 United States Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia. Boynton v. Virginia had outlawed racial segregation in restaurants and waiting rooms in terminals serving buses that crossed state lines, however, Jim Crow travel laws still remained in force throughout the South. The Freedom Riders set out to challenge this status quo. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”) sponsored many of the Freedom Rides.
As the US civil rights debate heightened throughout the 1960’s, violence toward African American protestors escalated culminating in the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. On June 10, 1968, James Earl Ray, a fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary, was arrested in London at Heathrow Airport. Ray was extradited to the United States and charged with King’s murder. On March 10, 1969, Ray entered a plea of guilty and was sentenced to 99 years in the Tennessee State Penitentiary
Both Ross and Jones said that their feelings upon hearing of Dr. King’s assassination were the same as when President Kennedy was shot.
“I was in Berryville at school” Ross reflected. “I remember that following week how sullen everything was and how nothing moved. Everyone felt sympathy at the loss.”
Paul Jones recollections as a college student in South Carolina of the events that followed King’s death were more dramatic.
“I was standing behind a dormitory when it came over the radio that Dr. King had been shot” Jones remembered. “I had the same feeling as when JFK had been shot. The difference was that I didn’t know who was going to take over leading me. But I knew that things were going to be very different from that point on.”
Jones said that colleges up and down the east coast with large African American populations were ordered to close by nightfall over fears of violence. Jones said that he and ten of his friends immediately packed their bags then climbed into his car and headed north toward Richmond.
The trip quickly turned into a violent nightmare.
“We were stopped almost immediately just north of Columbia by a state trooper who made us all get out of the car. One of the fellows with us was pretty big so the trooper made him lie on the ground” Jones said. “The trooper opened the trunk and threw all of our suitcases over the railing and down the bank of the highway. Then he called for more troopers and I knew that things were going to get bad.”
Fortunately for Jones and his classmates, the trooper was called away to another emergency allowing the boys to gather their belongings and continue north. Upon reaching Raleigh, North Carolina, the group was stopped again by a state trooper, only this time the officer was African American.
“He had to have been one of the only black troopers in North Carolina” Jones laughed. “Things were really rough in Raleigh so the trooper told us to drive through the black part of town so that we wouldn’t be stopped again. He said that if we could figure out how to let people on street know that black people were in the car we’d be OK. So we took a bar of soap and wrote “SOUL BROTHERS” on all of the windows. We got through Raleigh with no problems.”
Jones said that the group finally made it to Richmond without any more trouble. After dropping off his friends Jones headed home to Berryville.
“When I finally got home my mother was waiting up for me” Jones said. “When I walked in my mother started crying. I think that was the first time when I realized what was setting up for America.”
Jones said that returning to Berryville from the civil rights battles of the South was like entering a different world. The civil rights cause that King, and so many others had given their lives for, seemed to have had little noticeable impact in Berryville.
“I remember the going to the Berryville post office the day after I got home and seeing a black man take of his hat and open the door for a white couple going inside” Jones said. “All of these things, Dr. King being shot, driving six hours and scared to death the whole time knowing that we could have been killed and no one would have done a damned thing about it, made me see that my hometown was oblivious to what was going on. Everyone here had been raised in an environment where they were taught not to fight racism.”
But as the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was passed in the wake of Dr. King’s death, Jones and others began to see a change in the attitude of local citizens.
“At first it felt like nothing at all had happened” Jones said. “No one was saying anything about civil rights loud enough for both sides to hear. People would talk about getting lights on Josephine Street but didn’t talk about the sacred cows like “separate-but-equal” and discrimination.”
Jones credits much of local civil rights progress to the leadership of Mr. Ratcliff, a man Jones described as “a lightning rod who was 100 years ahead of his time”. Jones said that Ratcliff and others rallied support from Winchester, Frederick and Clarke County to form the local NAACP chapter that still functions today.
But despite the civil rights progress that Clarke County enjoys, Paul Jones warns that it is important for the African American community to somehow rekindle the activist energy of the 1960’s if it hopes to hang on to it hard-won civil rights.
“I cringe when I hear how many people say that they didn’t hear a speech that President Obama gave the night before” Jones said. “It was different when MLK spoke; people knew that it was important to listen then. Today the freedoms on the surface appear to be equal but they’re not. But will we go to a parent-teacher meeting or pay attention to something that doesn’t involve a ball? We don’t seem to have the same fire anymore.”
“When MLK stood up he had something to say” Jones said. “He was one of the world’s greatest orators. His ability to paraphrase and speak the truth inspired people of all colors. Dr. King made scared men brave. Somehow he inspired people in bib-overalls with holes in the soles of their shoes who had never done anything before to march from Selma to Montgomery.”
“How was able to get those people involved? I’ll never know but we need to get that back.”