Marian Cook had the rare chance to grocery shop without her four young kids in tow and so it was, on April 4, 1968, that she was browsing blissfully somewhere between the fresh produce and the milk at the Mock Road Super Duper when a woman — a somewhat frantic white woman — approached her.

“She said, 'Hey, you better go home,'” Cook, an 82-year-old retired IRS agent, recalled recently from her Olde Towne East home. She remembers asking the woman what was wrong. “She said, ‘Haven’t you heard the news? Martin Luther King has been assassinated. And they're afraid that riots and trouble will break out.”

Cook checked out and went home, gathered her family close and watched the news. That day, she said, changed everything.

“It was like the end of the world for us,” Cook said. “When he died, it was just like somebody had put the light out and said, ‘Y’all back in the dark.’”

Now, as the nation approaches the 50th anniversary Wednesday of the civil rights leader’s assassination on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, she finds herself reflecting along with so many others about what might have been had King lived and what parallels his life and legacy have to the social justice movements of today.

She still finds it difficult, even after all this time, to talk about how she and her friends weren’t allowed to eat in the “white kids” cafeteria at her Dayton high school in the 1950s. And she chokes up when she points to the faded bill of sale for “ninety-four prime, healthy negroes” that hangs on her wall. And she shakes her head as she recalls how her great-grandfather died a slave digging through Stone Mountain in Georgia to build a railroad. And she wonders aloud whether we’ve really come far enough as a nation after all.

“We were brought to this country in chains, sold like animals and worked to death,” she said.

“We’ve come a long way. It’s better now.” she said. “But it’s been a hard road.”

 

A lightning rod

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was 39 years old when James Earl Ray shot him as King stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where he’d been staying as he tried to help more than 1,000 black city garbage workers who were on strike.

What he had done to eradicate Jim Crow-era segregation and to advance the civil rights of the poor and blacks is well-documented. But his assassination changed the narrative of his story, experts say, and it is easy to forget all that he stood for and just how divisive he was at the time.

“King is loved a lot more on April 5 than he was on April 3,” said Hasan Jeffries, an associate professor at Ohio State University and a civil-rights and African-American history scholar who was speaking of 1968. Certain sects of both blacks and whites were increasingly growing frustrated with King, Jeffries said.

“He was seen as a sort of a lightning rod for racial tension,” he said. “He was being blamed for pushing things too fast, too far, and this chaos was the result of it.”

He said that King fell out of favor with some blacks for his continued preaching of nonviolent ways — some didn’t see that as the appropriate path any longer. And young blacks, especially, increasingly thought he was out of step.

And though some white northerners had earlier supported him, by 1968, King had spoken out against the Vietnam Way.

“Liberal white allies in particular said, ‘Talk about black folk and civil rights, fine, but don’t cross the line into foreign policy,” Jeffries said.

But the assassination turned the tide.
It is not as much revisionist history, Jeffries said, as selective memory. All of the things people remember of King are accurate, but people ignore that the very issues we still talk about and fight for change in today — fair living wages and income equality, police brutality, social justice and a war on poverty — were very much a part of his rhetoric back then.

“We have reduced King’s legacy to a handful of soundbites,” he said, “so that means the critique he was offering and the solutions he was proposing are lost. We celebrate the man but we don’t celebrate the lessons he was trying to teach us and that’s a problem.”

 

A devastating loss

Hilton I. Hale likes to say he was still in the womb the first time he met the Rev. Martin Luther King. King was in Columbus in April 1956 to deliver an address to statewide NAACP leaders, including the Rev. Phale D. Hale whose wife, Cleo, was a month from giving birth to Hilton Hale. Hilton Hale enjoys displaying a photograph published in The Dispatch documenting the visit and showing King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, with Rev. Hale and other Ohio civil-rights leaders.

Rev. Hale was pastor of the Union Grove Baptist Church for 43 years and a longtime NAACP chapter president and civil rights leader who also served 14 years in the Ohio House. He and King were close and, when King was in town, he stayed with the Hales.

Hilton Hale, a 61-year-old insurance agent in Columbus who is the youngest of the Hales' four children, recalls always being in awe of the man who tried to lead a nation into racial harmony. He remembers hearing stories of when King came to town in November 1959 to help celebrate the 71st anniversary of his father’s church. King preached that Sunday morning. And he remembers that some years later, his father took him to hear King speak at another church, one he thinks maybe was in southwestern Ohio. The young Hilton was startled that the church was surrounded by police and state troopers. He didn't know why.

"I was trying to understand why were they there while he was speaking," he said.

But by the time April 4, 1968, rolled around, he more than knew of the tensions that bubbled and brewed.

He was only 11 then, but old enough to feel the world shake. “You had to feel like, I guess it's similar to if we were hit by a nuclear bomb. It was just devastation,” Hale said.

Hale thinks of King and his legacy often these days, when there seems to still be so much turmoil. He thinks of the peaceful marches such as the ones led by the students following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the Black Lives Matters movements that began in the streets. With those, he said, King would be pleased.

Yet there is still too much talk and too little action, he said, too much weakening of character and too much unkindness.

“I think he would be very hurt to see the violence we inflict on each other, within the African-American race but also within American society,” Hale said of King.

The challenge, he said, is to move from protest to production: “We have to become better stewards of the rewards of the struggle. How to disagree without being disagreeable."

King’s connections to Columbus still run deep. His first cousin, the Rev. Joel King Jr., is associate minister at the Champion Avenue church that Phale Hale pastored. And Greg Foster, a social worker at a mental health agency, is a distant cousin of Martin Luther King’s wife, Coretta Scott King.

Joel King said today's movements parallel how his cousin enlisted young people to march, sit in and demonstrate for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s and show how much his legacy carries on.

Foster, though, can only shake his head at the tumult today. He speaks of black-on-black crime, of the continuing gun violence, the ever-increasing drug epidemic and a lack of answers to any of it. "As a country, even though Martin did all that he did, we are still a divided country, a divided people. Is that ever going to change?” he wonders.

Racism, the men said, still exists. But the best way to remember Martin Luther King and honor his legacy is to commit. "To get involved with government," Joel King said, "to vote, to get involved with schools or criminal justice issues — or whatever needs to be changed."
Keeping hope alive

On her living room mantle, Marian Cook keeps a photo of King leading the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965.

“I keep it there as a reminder that people have died so that you can be free,” she said. “I want to be reminded that this person died to keep hope alive.

“He was human and not without sin. We are not making him a God. We are just saying that he did so much good,” Cook said of King. “Hope that change would come. That’s what died when he was killed. But we learned that you can’t kill hope.”

Then she quoted one of King’s most famous speeches, and used the phrase that became the civil-rights rallying cry: “‘We shall overcome,’ it says. It just don’t say when.”

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