MLK work remains unfinished

When people of the United States awoke on the morning of Thursday, April 4, 1968, they did not imagine how significant the day would become — in a troubling way — before dusk would evolve into darkness.

People of the nation, looking forward to Easter 10 days hence, and who only four days earlier had been told by President Lyndon B. Johnson that he would not seek re-election, would be alerted before midnight via news reports — primitive news reports by today’s standard of virtually instantaneous coverage — that civil rights leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had been murdered in Memphis, Tenn.

The assassination of the eloquent civil rights voice still reverberates today — exactly 50 years later — as a defining moment in this country’s history, for the following reason:

King’s death did not extinguish the civil rights movement. It emboldened it — made it stronger and more determined than it had been even during the unrest of the mid-1950s.

However, it must be acknowledged that, even today, work within that movement remains unfinished.

The country paid a heavy price at the hands of outrage and violence in response to the evil act of white supremacist sniper James Earl Ray, who it was learned later had been stalking King for weeks before he gunned down the civil rights leader as he stood with associates on the balcony of a motel.

Ray was naive in failing to understand the possible consequences — the unintended consequences — of his crime.

While Ray was running from the law, 168 towns and cities across America, by the end of that week, had become scenes of riots that together greatly exceeded any that this country had experienced up to that time.

Some people of this region were part of the National Guard mobilization aimed at helping to protect the city of Pittsburgh, which was among the places that did not escape the tumult.

An important difference between the April 1968 riots and the deadly racial riots of 1965 in Los Angeles and those of 1967 in Detroit and Newark, N.J., was that the riots following King’s death were relatively brief.

That happened because police refrained from excessive force while many black leaders worked hard to calm the angry response being punctuated by arson, looting and other destruction.

Fortunately, places like Altoona and Johnstown did not experience the violent upheavals that were occurring elsewhere — despite the uneasiness that nevertheless hung over them.

Still, across the United States, 43 deaths were attributed directly to the riots that followed April 4’s tragic event.

U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who, prior to King’s assassination, was preparing to speak to a largely black neighborhood in Indianapolis, was undeterred by the violence underway across the country.

Kennedy, who had virtually locked in the Democratic presidential nomination when he himself was assassinated nine weeks later in Los Angeles, addressed his Indianapolis audience with these words:

“Those of you who are black can be filled with hatred, with bitterness and a desire for revenge. We can move toward further polarization. Or we can make an effort, as Dr. King did, to understand, to reconcile ourselves and to love.”

Those words make sense today, 50 years later.