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After MLK's assassination, firebombs rocked East St. Louis. Locals reflect 50 years later.

Belleville News-Democrat archival headlines MLK assassination

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. Firebombings and riots took place in Southern Illinois.
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Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. Firebombings and riots took place in Southern Illinois.

This is another installment of “Into the Archives,” a series that looks back on stories from the Belleville News-Democrat archives.

Fifty years ago today, on April 4, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 39 years old.

King was a non-violent, civil rights activist who championed the cause of racial equality and faith in God to overcome any obstacle.

Thousands of mourners marched peacefully and attended memorial services to honor King, but riots and looting also occurred.

Firebombings took place in East St. Louis and Carbondale. Police were dispatched to Alton and Cahokia high schools because of racially-motivated disturbances.

Black youths threw rocks at cars in East St. Louis and Centralia.

By the time the violence ceased, 125 cities across the country reported disturbances from vandalism and firebombs, arrests exceeded 20,000 and 43 people died.

Leaders from across the nation spoke out against the assassination, violent response and the need for civil rights legislation.

Others prayed for change. Some say, 50 years later, change has not come.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. BND archive

King, before his assassination, spoke about racial equality as a goal in the distance, like the "promised land" but obtainable.

"I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land," King said. "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."

Remembering King

The Most Rev. Bishop of Belleville Edward Braxton, one of the metro-east's most active and well-known activists for racial harmony, recently released to the Catholic parishes in the diocese a statement about the anniversary of King's assassination.

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The Most Rev. Edward K. Braxton, current Bishop of Belleville Derik Holtmann

In the statement, Bishop Braxton wrote, "For those who are attentive to history with an awareness of the racial divide in the United States, this sad anniversary is a somber reminder of a 'dream deferred.'"

He described King as "a latter day Mahatma Gandhi" and said he believed King would be disappointed to see the racial divide in the country today.

"For many American citizens, this death is only a matter of distant history," wrote Bishop Braxton. "For them, the only tangible consequence of this act of senseless violence is the fact that they have a day off every Jan. 15."

"Nevertheless, had his voice not been silenced by a murderer," wrote Bishop Braxton, "He would be using it today to encourage each of us to do what we can to build bridges across the divide."

Demetria Johnson, a member of New Life in Christ Interdenominational Church of O’Fallon, said her father, the Rev. Mack R. Lemons, marched with King in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.

Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton talks about the racial divide among Catholics.

"He is a pastor emeritus of the Pilgrim Baptist Church of East St. Louis," Johnson said. Rev. Lemons, who will be 91 years old on April 4, could not comment because of health reasons.

Johnson said, "When money was scarce and times were hard, Rev. Lemons made the trip because he wanted to make a difference. He knew he would be confronted with deadly violence and resistance."

"He knew God would take care of him," Johnson said.

Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton shares his experiences about being racially profiled as a young Catholic priest and after he became a bishop. He was not wearing clerical attire in both cases.

Alex McHugh, president of the Center for Racial Harmony in Belleville, said, "Natural laws aren't always self-evident, even in a multicultural democracy. One of the greatest lessons in the arc of Dr. King's legacy is he wasn't always revered for his sacrifices."

"At the Center for Racial Harmony, we go on in search of Dr. King's dream, and in the manner in which he strived for it," McHugh said.

Racial Harmony, an organization dedicated to fostering harmony and understanding, recently honored 36 local students who "build bridges through peace."

"We call on all those who admire him to join us," McHugh said. "Eventually society will render it agreeable."

In a recent letter to the BND, Robert E. Wells Jr., a Belleville attorney and ambassador for Racial Harmony, wrote, "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called upon faith-based institutions to overcome complacency and abandon the anesthetizing security of remaining silent behind stained glass windows."

"He noted that to recapture authenticity and sacrificed spirit the church must not only be a thermometer, but a thermostat that transforms the mores of society," Wells wrote. "How many prophets need be sent before we take heed?"

'A warrior for peace and justice'

Bishop Albert R. Zuroweste, who was Bishop of Belleville in 1968, released a statement to the Belleville News-Democrat the day after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Most Rev. Albert R. Zuroweste, Bishop of Belleville in 1968. BND archives

"It is with a feeling of deep sadness and shock that we, in the Diocese of Belleville, pay tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, a great warrior for peace and justice who last night gave his life for a cause dear to his heart," wrote Bishop Zuroweste.

"This senseless act of violence silenced a truly Christian gentleman who was a symbol of non-violence in this land and who had faith in the goodness of America," Bishop Zuroweste wrote. "He never doubted for a moment that one day all men would live in peace and harmony in this great country of ours."

Zuroweste called King "an apostle of love" and encouraged "all Americans who possess feelings of righteousness" to mourn his passing.

In a letter to the editor, published in the BND on the same day as Zuroweste's statement, Maurice E. Miller, a resident of Belleville, wrote, "Words are totally inadequate to express the wretched disgust which I feel for my race and my community in the awful light of the summary execution of Dr. Martin Luther King by an idiot white man."

Maurice E. Miller's 1968 letter to the editor. BND archives

"Should we not muster the courage to enter the homes and churches of our black fellow citizens and ask their forgiveness?" Miller wrote.

A BND editorial about King said, "The dastardly assassination of this civil rights campaigner has deeply shocked and shamed the nation. The murder was monstrous and wanton and senseless."

The BND editorial board discussed the power and lost promise of King. "Between the outmoded past and the fearful future, stood King, appealing with an eloquence rarely matched in our time, to reason and peaceful brotherhood," wrote the BND.

National response

According to the Associated Press, after learning about the shooting and her husband's death, Coretta Scott King said, "I do think it's the will of God. We always knew this could happen."

Coretta King went into seclusion after the shooting. She received only close friends and a few consolatory phone calls, one from then-President Lyndon B. Johnson.

In a statement about the murder, President Johnson said, "The dream of Martin Luther King has not died with him. Men who are white — men who are black — must and will join together now as never in the past to let all the forces of division know that America shall not be ruled by the bullet but by the ballot of free and just men."

Another phone call Coretta King received was from New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who would be assassinated later the same year, on June 6.

Sen. Kennedy also issued a national plea for unity. Kennedy referenced his brother, President John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination, in the request.

"I had a member of my family killed," Kennedy said. "But he was killed by a white man."

"Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and justice for his fellow human beings and he died because of that effort," Kennedy said. "Those of you who are black, and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust in the injustice of such an act, I only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling."

Kwame Ture, who was known as Stokely Carmichael in 1968, was an organizer and spokesperson for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Power movement. He died in 1998 at age 57.

According to an AP report, Ture called King's assassination "an act of war."

"When white America killed Dr. King, it declared war on us," Ture said in 1968.

Before his death, King said, "Black Power is a cry of disappointment ... It is a cry of daily hurt and persistent pain ... The call for Black Power is a reaction to the failure of white power."

Violence erupts

Cities across Southern Illinois and the United States burned. Stores and cars were damaged.

Violence erupted after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. BND archive

The BND reported Novack Clothing Store in East St. Louis received minor damage when a fire bomb was tossed at the building from a passing car.

Twenty-one fires were reported in East St. Louis. Authorities suspected arson in four of the fires.

In a separate disturbance, a retired Air Force officer was injured when the car he was riding in was hit by stones at State and 27th streets in East St. Louis.

Carbondale experienced a series of firebombings. Police eventually reported 13 arsons, but no injuries from the fires.

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Carbondale had a series of firebombings in 1968 after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. BND archives

Four black teenagers were arrested for throwing rocks and bricks at a car in Centralia. They were sentenced to 10 days in jail and probation for two years.

Area police sent officers to Cahokia and Alton high schools after minor, racially-motivated incidents were reported there.

According to an AP report, in Chicago, firemen braved sniper bullets to fight the fires while Illinois National Guardsmen and rioters exchanged gunfire.

Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley said, "everything is under control," as he walked the "charred and glass-littered streets" with Fire Commissioner Robert J. Quinn.

Within 24 hours of King's assassination, nine were dead in Chicago alone.

After more than a week of violence, 125 cities across the country experienced riots, more than 20,000 people were arrested and 43 people were dead.

Prayers and peaceful marches

As violence rocked cities, a peaceful and prayerful response took place as well.

Memorial services to honor King were held at churches and universities across Southern Illinois and in St. Louis.

Methodist Bishop Lance Webb led 400 children through Collinsville as a tribute to King.

Bishop Webb said, "I'm afraid there's no way we can escape what will amount to a civil war between blacks and whites unless all of us have a new awareness of Christian responsibility."

According to an AP report in 1968, 25,000 people marched peacefully from the Gateway Arch to Forest Park on Palm Sunday in St. Louis. Seven thousand more people joined the marchers at Forest Park for a brief service for King.

The Rev. Vinton Anderson, of St. Paul Ame Church of St. Louis, spoke to the gathering, "I am convinced today we shall overcome. We shall have freedom. We shall have justice."

St. Clair County government offices joined local governments across the country and closed on the Tuesday after King's assassination to honor the fallen leader. Schools closed as well.

'Drum major for peace'

An estimated 150,000 people attended a memorial service for King at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

King's recorded voice was played at the memorial. "I want you to say that day that I tried to be right and I want you to say that I tried to live and serve humanity," King said on the recording.

"Yes, if you want to, say that I was a drum major. Say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace," King said.

In Bishop Braxton's recent essay, he references King's "drum major" remarks and said King had "a premonition of his imminent, violent death."

He wrote, "During a time when the opposition implemented legislation that withheld rights from people of color and expressed hatred through beatings and killings, Dr. King continued to take the high road."

"He constantly preached that nonviolence will ultimately allow the opposition to prevail," Bishop Braxton wrote.

He credits King with the ultimate success of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and believes King has impacted "the fight for equality, justice and peace in the present day."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.