COMMENTARY: Remembering back to April 4, 1968

Fifty years have gone by since 1968, a year that will always stand out as one of the most tumultuous in our history. There were many controversial issues and a large number of tragedies, but there is one day that sticks out, for its excitement and exuberance in the morning and its tragedy and tribulation in the evening — April 4, 1968.

In the morning, the Notre Dame campus tingled with excitement; Bobby Kennedy was coming to campaign for the presidency of the United States. It was the height of the Indiana primary. Although Kennedy had entered the race late, his candidacy was helped enormously on March 31 when President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek and would not accept the nomination for president. Of course, he was also helped tremendously by being part of the powerful and magnetic Kennedy family.

I had a small connection to Bobby Kennedy, for I had just been awarded the John F. Kennedy Law Scholarship that was funded personally by Bobby Kennedy. At Notre Dame that morning I had a front-row seat and watched him give a rousing speech, focusing on his own dreams of things that never were, and asking why not. I will always remember the clamoring of my fellow students, as we all believed Kennedy would take the country in a new direction.

Later in the day Kennedy and I both heard at about the same time that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis. I was stunned, and tried to absorb the impact on myself and my country. Kennedy insisted on going to an African-American neighborhood in Indianapolis where he stood on the bed of a pickup truck and broke the news of the assassination to a shocked crowd, urging them to reflect, forgive, and to love with these immortal words: “What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but love, wisdom and compassion toward one another.”

King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, as he prepared to support striking city sanitation workers, is one of those moments for which everyone remembers where they were when they found out. Fellow Daytonian Charlotte McGuire (currently a member of the Ohio State Board of Education) remembers that she was then a high school senior in Memphis. She and her classmates were waiting in downtown Memphis, getting ready for the upcoming protest march that was to be led by King. Devastated by the news, Charlotte rushed home to be with her family so that her parents could help all of them find comfort in this outrageous murder.

King’s assassination sparked riots and protests in more than 100 cities throughout the United States, with Washington, D.C., perhaps suffering the most damage, both in terms of death and personal injuries and in terms of looting and fire as more than 1,000 buildings were badly damaged or destroyed. The rioting and fires lasted four days, while the aftermath of those riots has smoldered for years and years.

Over the past 50 years, the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. has grown to seemingly Biblical proportions. King will always represent the hopes and dreams for a peaceful integrated society in America. His legacy is memorialized by a 30-foot-tall statue of him on the National Mall in Washington where you can see him emerging out of the granite mountain of despair and becoming the Stone of Hope. That’s a vision that should inspire all of us.

Dayton attorney Merle Wilberding is a regular contributor.

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