The assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shocked the nation. Today, civil-rights leaders and students of color in Rhode Island reflect on the long arc of history and the promise of justice.
For many civil-rights leaders who have lived more than half a century, life is broken into two parts.
There were the days before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and the days afterward, several prominent leaders who live in Rhode Island said last week as they reflected on the 50th anniversary of King’s death.
On April 4, 1968, King was shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The day before, he had delivered what’s known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, which he concludes with an eerily prescient acknowledgement of his own mortality:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. 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. 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.”
“And so,” King continued, “I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
Jim Vincent, president of the Providence branch of the NAACP, was a junior at Boston Technical High School at the time of the assassination. His homeroom teacher held a moment of silence, Vincent recalled.
“I remember very vividly hearing about it on the news,” he said. “And then my teacher saying to us … four boys of color in the class. To each, he said, “I am sorry.'”
Malcolm Farmer III was to be married in two days when the news broke that that King, one of his idols, had been killed.
“It was surprising, but also not surprising,” Farmer said. “There’s no question there were forces of repression and racism that had it in for him … and he certainly had no willingness to back down or cease working for the things he believed in.”
As a young lawyer in 1965, Farmer left Providence for Mississippi, where he represented civil-rights workers and black Americans seeking voting rights. In 1967, Farmer returned to Rhode Island to work as the executive director of the Governor’s Commission on Delinquency and Criminal Administration.
In many ways, King’s death reaffirmed his commitment to the cause, Farmer said. It pushed him to hold his ground against the Providence Police Department, he said, when officers requested a military vehicle to “keep the peace” in South Providence after King’s assassination.
Cliff Montiero, who took part in the historic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with King, said a friend called him to tell him that King had been killed.
“I had hatred in my heart for about an hour,” recalled Montiero. “And then another friend of mine called, and we got realistic.”
The men organized a candlelight vigil around the State House. Hatred and contempt made way for organizing and forward thinking, said Montiero, who would rise to president of the Providence NAACP.
Farmer said that given today’s divisive political climate, it is difficult to look at the anniversary as a positive marker or a chance to enjoy the progress people of color have made in America.
“I think we’re definitely going backwards with the administration. Any efforts the president has engaged in, his talk and actions, I would categorize as racist, nativist, anti-immigrants and certainly anti-African,” he said. “The whole thing is depressing.”
Vincent agreed: “President Trump and this current administration are hell-bent on erasing 50 years of progress …. I never thought we would be at this place at this point in my life, 50 years after [King’s] death.”
The men cited persistent school segregation, the rise of blatant white supremacy (as seen in the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and beyond), and the rolling back of parts of the Voting Rights Act.
But the younger generation brings hope. Montiero said he is inspired by the students from Parkland, Florida, who have taken the issue of gun violence into their own hands.
“Sometimes people don’t get active until someone puts a foot on their throat,” Montiero said. “Trump has put his foot on their throats.”
On Thursday at Mount Pleasant High School, in Providence, three teenagers reflected on their recent activism. Two of the young women attended last month’s March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C., with their mentor, Pilar McCloud.
Aaliyah Lutchman, a 16-year-old sophomore at Classical High School, said she feels progress has been slow, but she hopes to speed it up. She remembered fondly the first time she heard King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
“I was 7 or 8, and my health teacher, she was singing it to us,” she said. “I was like, ‘Yes! Tell me over and over again!’”
Lutchman, and I’jah Chandler, a 15-year-old Mount Pleasant freshman — the two who went to Washington — and Julianna Rodrigues, a 16-year-old junior at The Met School, all said they think about King’s principles of nonviolence during their activism.
“Our generation has good qualities, but sometimes the bad qualities overshadow the good qualities,” Chandler said. “People say ‘Oh, this generation, they’re into gangs, they’re not taking school seriously.’ I don’t think the good children get acknowledged as much as the bad ones.”
“Our generation needs more people to inspire them.”
Rodrigues sees it this way: “Other people have marched for us. I think it would be beneficial [for us] to continue.”
On Twitter: @jacktemp