This Month in History – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated: April 4, 1968

On Thursday April 4, 1968, just after 6 p.m., the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot while he was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.  He was pronounced dead an hour later.  King’s colleague and friend Reverend Ralph Abernathy, at a press conference on April 6, called the assassination “one of the darkest hours in this history of black people in this nation and one of the darkest hours in the history of mankind…”
 In one of those quirks of history, Dr. King was supposed to be in Wilmington on the day he was lethally shot in Memphis. According to a report in the Wilmington Morning Star, “Dr. King was to have spoken at Williston High School to launch a county-wide registration drive…At approximately the same time Dr. King was to have spoken at the high school in Wilmington, he was cut down by a bullet in Memphis.”   

Dr. Hubert Eaton and the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference had been working to get Dr. King to come to Wilmington for a couple of months as a part of “…a massive Statewide voter registration drive.”  The event was first scheduled for February, and had to be canceled.  In late March it  was rescheduled for April 4, 1968.  

The April 4, 1968 event was designed to promote voter registration.  King was set to be on stage with Dr. Reginald Hawkins, “the first Negro gubernatorial candidate in North Carolina history.”  Hawkins was a dentist and a civil rights advocate, and he sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1968 and 1972.   Wilmington was one of the stops Dr. King was supposed to make in North Carolina in support of Hawkins and voter registration.   

Dr. King backed out of the event a few days before it was held.  He had been at a march in Memphis for striking sanitation workers that had ended in violence, and after the SCLC met in Atlanta and discussed their next moves, King chose to return Memphis on April 3, 1968.    

At least one leader in the Wilmington African American community seemed relieved that King was not coming to Wilmington: the Wilmington Journal’s editor and owner T. C. Jervay, who had fallen out with Hubert Eaton in 1966,  expressed concern about King’s visit, and declared “There has been much unrest here, with a majority of the Negro and white citizens hoping and praying that Dr. King would not come here, if his presence would provoke violence.”  

That’s not to say that the Wilmington Journal didn’t have respect for Dr. King’s work and life.  Right after the assassination, on April 9, 1968,  the newspaper issued a special, free “Peace Edition” in memory of Dr. King.  In it, T. C. Jervay issued a statement under the headline “Please, Let’s ‘Cool’ It!” in which he mourned the loss of the Civil Rights leader, saying “The death of Dr. Martin Luther King is one of the most tragic events of all times….Our heart is heavy; many hearts are heavy. Those of us who were born here, those of us who have come here to cast their lots with us, those of us who love Wilmington, though hating its faults, are asking all to calm down, to stop the rioting, and to stop all violence.”  

Jervay, who voiced support for economic activism in the pages of the Journal,  also issued a call to action to the community: “If you are not satisfied with white merchants in your neighborhoods, don’t patronize them.  If they won’t hire you to work, stay out of their stores.  It is not fair to burn them out, loot them, when you are angry and trade with them when you are not so angry. Ask for employment. If you don’t get it, you have the boycott and selective buying.  Use your head instead of your backsides.  Don’t get mad, get smart.”  

Jervay called for calm because after Dr. King’s death, violence broke out in a number of cities around the nation.  At first, it seemed as if Wilmington’s streets might remain relatively calm. On Saturday April 6, the Wilmington Morning Star reported “Though rioting erupted in some North Carolina cities, only a few minor incidents were reported in Wilmington. Organized activity here following the death of the civil rights leader was orderly and peaceful.”    

But calm did not last.   

On the night of April 6, 1968, violence broke out in the city, the national guard was called out, and a curfew was imposed in Wilmington.  After 4 days of violence things seemed to calm down. On Tuesday, April 9 — the same day the violence in Wilmington abated — the Reverend King was buried in Atlanta, Georgia.   The next day, Wilmington’s emergency curfew was lifted.

Previous Columns

March: Sending Victory Mail Home
February:  Human Relations Month
January 2018:
Galloway’s Sick Note
A Ship is Launched
Election Day and a Parade
Developing the story
A soldier/artist sketches a famous dancer
Urban Renewal Takes Off
Launching Concrete River Vessel No. 5
Wilmington Meets Los Angeles
Bellamy Sails to France
World TB Day
February: David Walker is Honored with a Marker
January 2017:
Two Brothers Honored on One Memorial Stone
Holiday Gifts
A nurse comes home from war
Wartime football takes the bases by storm
Circus Day
Motorboat Racing
Celebrating Independence Day at the Beach
Wilmington Turns 200, June 21, 1939
Laura Grace Cox graduates from Tileston
Saint Marks Turns 100, April 1969
March: Troops Return Home, March 29, 1919
February: Black History Month turns 40
January: Fort Johnston and Fort Caswell are seized, January 8, 1861

Framed lighted print of Martin Luther King, about 1960
Gift of Peggy Michelli
814 Market Street • Wilmington, NC 28401 • Phone 910-798-4370 • Fax 910-798-4382