It was 50 years ago this April when civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee — an event that resulted both in riots as well as renewed calls for nonviolence. For one Chicago teacher and civil rights advocate, the death of Martin Luther King Jr. meant a move south and a commitment, not to improving race relations, but to educating African American youth.
Robert L. Harris Jr. is professor emeritus of African American history at Cornell University and former director of the Africana Studies and Research Center. He says when Dr. King was killed in 1968, he was a social studies teacher in a predominantly white neighborhood.
Harris Jr. says:
“In 1968, I was a sixth-grade social studies teacher at St. Rita Elementary School. Two years prior, when Dr. King began his open housing campaign in Chicago, my wife and I attended the rallies and participated in the marches. In Marquette Park, the ‘white’ neighborhood in which I taught, Dr. King was struck in the head by a rock and knocked temporarily to the ground. He later declared: ‘I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I've seen here today.’ I had seen many of my students and their parents shouting vile epithets at the demonstrators.
“When Dr. King was assassinated, my wife and I decided that we would move to Birmingham, Alabama, and teach at historically black Miles College. I had decided that I would devote my talents to the education of African Americans, rather than trying to improve race relations.”