Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee 50 years ago this Wednesday — an event that resulted both in riots as well as renewed calls for nonviolence. For two Cornell University scholars, Dr. King’s life and death had a personal impact.
Riché Richardson is an associate professor of African-American literature in the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University. She says her mother saw Dr. King as a little girl, and her grandfather filed passed his body lying in repose.
"As a native of Montgomery, Alabama, my life’s journey has been profoundly impacted and touched by civil rights histories and legacies in countless ways. Murray Richardson, the dear uncle of my mother Joanne Richardson, lived a few doors away from Dr. King’s parsonage on Jackson Street in Montgomery. My mother saw Dr. King when visiting her uncle as a little girl and, while she didn’t know his name or who he was at the time, remembers him from back then as ‘That nice man up the street.’
“Our cousin Ludie Meadows attended the March on Washington. Many times, I have heard my grandmother Emma Lou Jenkins Richardson, who attended some mass meetings, say that the only day my mom ever missed school growing up was the day of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, when she left early and caught a bus over to the house of her great aunt Sarah Hodge Carson, known as ‘Leah.’ They joined the marchers on the final stretch toward downtown as they passed near Leah's house that day. That was also the next and only other time that my mother saw Dr. King again after her early childhood.
“My grandfather Joe Richardson had a contracting job in construction at Herman J. Russell’s company in Atlanta and was among the thousands who filed past Dr. King’s body lying in repose at Sisters Chapel on the campus of Spelman College after his death. I study, read and write about civil rights history, but have been very blessed throughout my life to hear recollections and oral histories from many family and friends who remember it firsthand."
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 in Chicago.
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.”