April 4, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. As we reflect on this date, we want to share a personal remembrance story by Theo Brown, a senior at Baylor on April 4, 1968.
April 4-8, 1968: A Personal Remembrance by Theo Brown
On April 4, 1968 I was eight weeks short of graduating from Baylor University and my head was filled with exciting plans for the future. It was a beautiful spring day in Waco, Texas and it had been a typically busy day in my life as a college senior. The evening promised more of the same and there was certainly nothing to indicate that I was about to experience the most memorable night of my life.
I was youth director at 7th and James Baptist Church and at about 5:30 in the evening I was alone in the church office making calls to Baylor students. I was trying to recruit a couple of chaperones for one of my youth activities scheduled that weekend and was not having very much luck. On about the fifth or sixth call I reached an obviously upset coed who asked me if I had heard the news that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot in Memphis. I remember blurting out something like “No, oh no” and then hearing her say “I don’t really care about him, but I’m worried about the violence and rioting this might cause.” Her insensitive comment irritated me and led me to mumble something about how much I loved King before I hung up and ran into the pastor’s office to turn on the radio.
I was as shocked and stunned as I had ever been in my life as I paced in the pastor’s office and listened to the news bulletins about King having been shot. I talked to my self and prayed as best I could and felt something approaching panic at the thought of King’s death. Over the past year and a half, King had become my hero and my inspiration and, more than anything I had decided I wanted to model my life after his. For several years I had been planning to be a Baptist preacher and he had inspired me to want to be one that worked for justice and racial reconciliation. At first I couldn’t fathom the thought that he might die and I actually believed (or at least fervently hoped) that he might pull through. But it wasn’t long before the horrible news was finally confirmed—he was pronounced dead of his wounds at a little after 6:00 PM Texas time.
Almost immediately after learning he had died, I left the office and went out through the church courtyard into the growing darkness.
I felt indescribably sad, lonely and lost and needed something to do with my grief. My loneliness was intensified by the fact that my roommate, Paul Malone, who also shared by love for Dr. King, was out of town representing Baylor at a conference at the Air Force Academy. Paul and I had discovered Dr. King together and we talked about him frequently and what his message meant for our lives. In many ways, Paul had understood and embraced the teachings of King even more deeply than me. He was always saying that it wasn’t enough to talk about King that we needed to take specifics actions to counter the racism we saw at Baylor and in Waco. It was Paul who had taken the lead in mentoring kids in the black neighborhood south of LaSalle, and Paul who had come up with the idea of us moving into that neighborhood during our final semester at Baylor. He was my soul mate in the spiritual transformation King had created in our lives and I ached that I couldn’t talk to him.
Since Paul was away, I had no idea what to do. I began to walk around the campus—heading no where in particular as my head spun with thoughts and deep emotion rushed over me. After walking for a while, I settled down on the side of a fountain near the center of the campus. I was crying and felt a sense of almost total despair. As I sat there, I had the first stirrings of a strong feeling that would grow throughout the next several days – the need to do something, to take some action. What happened was so horrible that it had to have a response. It felt like the grief would overwhelm me if I didn’t fight back.
I started by writing down some of what I was thinking and feeling and how much King meant to me.
I had a small notepad with me and began to write whatever came into my head. After a few minutes of stream of consciousness thoughts and feelings, my writing began to take the form of a letter to Coretta Scott King. I poured out my sadness and the details of how much I had been inspired by her husband. I wrote how he had become my hero and told her that I and many others would carry on his work. I pledged to dedicate my life to do what I could to advance King’s teachings.
After finishing what became a two-page letter, I felt the need to connect with others who shared my pain and talk and maybe cry together. I went out in search of some kindred spirits—particularly members of a group of about two dozen of us who had become active at Baylor in pushing for civil rights and working against the war in Vietnam. In those days, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not well liked at Baylor or by most white Americans and was seen as a “trouble maker” or “too controversial.” Although his birthday is now a national holiday and he has a monument in Washington, DC between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, in April of 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was probably the most hated man in America. However, thanks to some local pastors and a few Baylor professors who were prominent at the time, Dr. King and his teachings were beginning to get a following among some Baylor students. In particular, the preaching of Rev. Riley Eubank at 7th and James Baptist Church and the teaching of Dr. Dan McGee, professor of Christian Ethics, had opened many people’s eyes and helped some of us to see King for the great moral and spiritual leader he was.
I headed across campus in search of a place where these friends might be gathering. As I walked down Speight Street, I was startled to run into John Westbrook. As those familiar with Baylor history know, John was the first black football player in the Southwest Conference and had just broken the color barrier the previous season as a running back for the Bears. Paul and I had gotten to know John a little, but I rarely saw him on campus and that I ran into him on the night King had been murdered felt a little surreal. John seemed to be in shock as we exchanged brief comments and condolences before he left to head to Elgin to be with his family. I continued on alone, wondering what else the evening would hold.
In a few minutes I was as the apartment of my friends Steve Ober and Tim Barrett, who had graduated from Baylor in 1967 and were pursuing master’s degrees. As I suspected, several people had already gathered there and over the next hour or so another half dozen arrived until there were 10-12 of us in the apartment. We watched television reports of what had happened and talked softly about how sad and devastated we were. After a while, the television news began to show clips of King’s speech from the night before where he talked about how he would “like to live a long life,” but said “that really doesn’t matter to me now, because I have been to the mountain top and seen the other side.” He continued that “I ‘ve looked over and seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know that we as a people will get to the promised land.”
As we listened to the words we were stunned.
Did King really say that the night before his death? Was he so prophetic that he somehow knew he was coming to the end of his life? Watching that clip over and over was incredibly sad and yet also hopeful. Here was Dr. King, the greatest spiritual leader of our time who had just been murdered, telling us that things were going to be ok and that we would “get to the promised land.”
After we had been there an hour or so, Steve Ober suggested that we should observe “The Lord’s Supper.” I was a bit surprised by that since I had never thought of “The Lord’s Supper” as something you could do anywhere outside of a Baptist church. My immediate thought was where would we get the grape juice and wafers. Steve was much more practical – and less worried by convention than I – and he brought out some water and slices of spongy white bread. We stood around his kitchen table and he led us in prayer and through the simple ceremony of taking the cup and eating the bread. Some of us cried as we went through the familiar ritual as the prophetic words of King from the night before were playing over and over on the TV in the background.
It felt good to share The Lord’s Supper together and we then began to talk about what we should do to respond to King’s death. Once again there was that feeling that we needed to act – to do something to push back against the darkness. We quickly agreed that one thing we could do together was to organize a memorial service on campus to honor King. We decided it should be the next morning and that the logical place to have it was 7th and James Baptist Church – right next to campus and the home church for many of us. We knew time was short, but felt we could get it all done and hoped it wasn’t too late to get a last minute announcement in The Lariat which we knew was usually printed after midnight.
First step was to get permission to use a room at 7th and James and a late night call (which woke him up) to Bob Weissinger, the church’s associate pastor, took care of that. Next task was to get an article in the campus paper and we found the Lariat co-editors, Ed Kelten and Tommy Kennedy, at The Lariat office putting the final touches on the next day’s paper. Tommy and Ed were sympathetic to the work our group was doing on campus and they quickly agreed to put a notice about the memorial service for King on the front page of the next morning’s edition. At the same time, someone in our group agreed to design a flyer about the service and run off some copies for distribution in the morning.
We then spent another hour or so going over the order of service and deciding who would do what. I was assigned the role of MC and others agreed to lead prayers, sing, or read Scripture. We wrote out a rough outline and identified the specific things we wanted. Someone suggested we get a fellow student, Teri Phelps, a well-known soprano on campus to sing and we all loved that idea. Of course, we knew that we would close the service by singing “We Shall Overcome.”
By the time The Lariat had been notified, the flyers had been created and the service had been planned – it was about 2:30 AM. As everyone began to retire to their dorms or their apartments, it dawned on me that I had a long walk home. Paul and I had moved out of our apartment near Baylor a few months earlier and rented a small house in south Waco that cost $8 a week. We had moved into the run down little house in an all black neighborhood to show solidarity with the black families we had gotten to know during the past year and to help keep us mindful of the poverty and racism that encircled Baylor in those days. It was a little more than a mile from campus and sometimes we would drive, but that evening I didn’t have a car.
It felt strange to start out in the middle of the night after Dr. King had been killed to walk to a neighborhood where I was the only white person.
I wasn’t afraid because Paul and I had always been treated with kindness in that neighborhood and, of course, I also knew that the people around me were probably already asleep. At the same time, as every step took me further away from the white world of Baylor and into the black world of Waco in the late 1960s, I felt the depth of separation between the worlds more intensely than ever. I felt the horrible darkness of hundreds of years of racism and it was compounded by the deep sadness that we no longer had Dr. King to help us find the light.
After I got to the house I couldn’t sleep at first, but finally dozed off and slept fitfully for a couple of hours before getting up early to change clothes and head back to the campus. The memorial service we had hastily planned the night before was scheduled for 10:00 AM and there was still much to do. I walked back to campus in the early morning light and arrived about 7:30 AM to see copies of The Lariat with our announcement on the front page. I met up with one of the group members to get some flyers to paste on walls and distribute to students going to class. Someone else in our group headed to Baylor Drug, which in those days was right across the street from the old library at the corner of Fifth and Speight. It was a popular hangout for breakfast and a good place to publicize campus events. It was packed that morning and, as I later learned, as one of the students at the counter saw the flyer and he whispered loudly to those around him “I’m glad they finally got that nigger – he had it coming.”
The comment at Baylor Drug reminded us all that, like most universities in the South at that time, Baylor students in the 60s were still heavily influenced by the racist society they had grown up in. In 1968, there were still regular instances of openly racist comments and actions at Baylor, but, fortunately they were less frequent as the success of the Civil Rights Movement had begun to change the culture. However, Baylor had been slow to integrate (the university’s first African-American graduate, Robert Gilbert, had just finished the year before) and many in the Baylor community were still not comfortable with the changes that were taking place.
As 10:00 AM approached, I wondered how many would attend our service and certainly didn’t expect a big crowd. I was pleased when about 50 people arrived and settled into their seats. I can’t remember exactly how the service unfolded, but have vivid memories of some parts of it . . . a beautiful reading of the love chapter from First Corinthians . . . another student and I taking turns reading from King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail . . . the sense of solidarity and deep sadness we felt at the end as we linked arms and sang “We Shall Overcome.” Most of all, I remember Teri Phelp’s singing “I Know That my Redeemer Liveth” from the Messiah and to this day I think of that memorial service every time I hear that song. After a few hugs and some more tears, it was over. We didn’t know whether the service would have any impact, but we felt good about our late night efforts and that we had managed to do something to honor King.
Saturday and Sunday passed in something of a blur. I remember that Riley Eubank preached a particularly good sermon, but can’t remember the details. I recall that it was Palm Sunday and the awareness that King was murdered at the beginning of Holy Week made a deep impression on me. Mostly, though, I remember feeling sad and powerless throughout the weekend. On Sunday night after church, I was still in shock and trying to figure out how to respond to the horror of the past few days. I ended up going out to a restaurant with Eric Morris, one of the friends who had been at the apartment on Thursday night, to have coffee and talk more about what we might do to memorialize Dr. King. I will still driven by the need to act and, in particular, to help Baylor students respond to the horrible tragedy of King’s death. We began to talk about what we might do to show our love of Dr. King and all that he stood for. As we were talking about possibilities, we discussed what was going to happen over the next few days – especially the sanitation workers march in Memphis the next day and King’s funeral set for later in the week in Atlanta.
While we were talking, it suddenly dawned on me what we should do – we should go to Memphis!
After I blurted out that idea, Eric quickly agreed and we smiled and laughed at the thought – yes, we should get in the car and drive to Memphis! We looked at our watches and realized that if we left soon – within the next hour or two – we could get to Memphis in time for the march that next morning. We quickly made a list of who to invite and talked about where we might find them. We jotted down about a dozen names and left the restaurant and spread out across the campus to find those who we thought would want to go with us. Of course, this was a time long before cell phones and it could be difficult to find people when they were out and about on a Sunday night. First on my list was Paul who I found at our house. He had just returned from Colorado and was eager to go. I found Steve Ober in the library and said “get your things, Ober, we are going to Memphis!” Steve then joined the search for those who had been in his apartment a couple of nights earlier and, after an hour of frantic phone calls and visits to dorms and apartments, we found eleven Baylor students who committed to go to Memphis. Three of those couldn’t go that night, but said they would fly up in the morning. The other eight of us grabbed a few things, loaded up two cars and started out a little before midnight to drive to Memphis which was 550 miles away.
I don’t remember much about the drive and I don’t think we talked much on the way there. We took turns sleeping and driving and occasionally commenting to each other that we couldn’t believe we were really doing this. The two cars stayed together during the long drive and finally arrived about 8:30 in the morning. We checked a Memphis paper to learn the details of when and where the march would be. One car then left to go pick up those who had taken an early flight from Dallas and the others of us camped out at a restaurant to get some breakfast.
Once we were all back together, we drove as close as we could to the assembly point for the march and parked our cars. We could see people streaming together from many directions and followed the movement towards the back of the line so we could join the march that had just started. As we approached, we were given signs to carry and most of us ended up with the now iconic signs that the sanitation workers had been carrying during their long battle with the city that said “I Am a Man.” We took our signs and fell into the long line of people marching before us. All of us from Baylor marched along together and certainly would have been easy to spot since there were very few white faces in the crowd. Every time we got near what looked like a television news camera one of the Baylor students next to me would hike up his sign in front of his face because, as he explained, his dad would disown him if he saw him on the TV news marching in Memphis. Mostly, we marched in silence and took in the scene around us – a thin line of police on either side of us, sidewalks filled with mostly white folks watching the march and tens of thousands of heartbroken and resolute black folks marching in front of and around us.
Finally we arrived at the park where the rally was held. Even though we were near the back of the march, we got ushered into a place fairly close to the stage and off to the side. We arrived just in time to hear Coretta Scott King and her wise and courageous speech left us all wondering where she got the strength to keep going. I remember Dr. King’s best friend, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, gave a rousing speech saying that the movement would go on and that “King was your Moses and I will be your Joshua.” While I loved the analogy and was heartened by Rev. Abernathy’s energy and commitment, I knew that there was no way that Abernathy, or anyone else, could be up to the task of replacing Dr. King. After an hour or so, the rally ended and we headed back to our cars to begin the long drive back to Waco. We were exhausted, but also elated by the experience of marching for Dr. King in Memphis and being a part of history.
When we got back to Waco that Monday night Paul and I ran into some students who told us that a memorial service for King was underway in Minglewood Bowl. We hurried over to the program and were surprised – and elated – to see a large crowd. The service was ending, and at least 200 or 300 people from every part of the Baylor community were standing together and singing “We Shall Overcome.” Black maintenance workers and white faculty members were linking arms with students and the maids who cleaned their rooms. I had sung “We Shall Overcome” several times during the past few days, but this was the most meaningful. To see this at the end of our journey to Memphis gave me the greatest sense of hope I had felt since Dr. King had been killed. As darkness fell at the end of the service, Paul and I looked at each other and smiled. We could see the outlines of a new Baylor that would emerge in the years to come and it gave us hope.
I never mailed the letter to Coretta Scott King that I wrote on April 4, 1968, but it may have been the most important letter I ever wrote.
In the 50 years since then, I have often thought of my experiences at Baylor on the night Martin Luther King, Jr. died and the days that followed. I have also regularly reminded myself of the commitments I made in that letter. After Baylor, those commitments led me to two years of teaching in West Africa, divinity school and then a life spent as an organizer for groups working for social justice. Through it all, I realize that what I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. while at Baylor – and the intense experiences I had after his murder – has shaped my life more than anything else I have ever done. Now, in 2018, I feel enormous gratitude for those at Baylor in the 1960s who introduced me to Dr. King and helped me find my purpose in life. I am also deeply thankful for the emergence of a Baylor and an America where Dr. King is seen as the hero he is and his message of love and reconciliation is celebrated. The headlines of today remind us that much more still needs to be done to promote justice and equal opportunity in our country, but we have come a very long ways since April of 1968. On this 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death we should be deeply thankful for that. I know that I am.