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Students, faculty members and Athens residents held memorials for Martin Luther King Jr. after he was assassinated April 4, 1968. (Photo provided by the Mahn Center for Archives & Special Collections)

How Athens reacted to Martin Luther King Jr.’s death 50 years ago

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Like much of the U.S., those in Athens mourned the loss of the civil rights activist and held demonstrations and memorials in his honor.

The front page of The Post on April 5, 1968, read “King assassinated; riots spread,” detailing how the country reacted to the news of his death.

On that day at Ohio University, about 4,000 people gathered in front of Baker Center, where then-OU President Vernon Alden spoke about King’s moral vision.

“He shamed the conscience of the nation and yet invigorated all of us. He gave us a legacy, which must be fulfilled in our time,” Alden said in a previous Post report. “By his life and work, he honored every man. He has left an achievement of freedom, which is more than adequate to fill the void of his death.”

During that event, Fred Oddos, then the president of the African Students Association, said King’s death wasn’t just a loss to the U.S.

“The loss of this man is a loss to all peace lovers of the world,” Oddos said in a previous Post report. “He lived not only for peace and justice in the United States, but for peace and justice in South Africa, in Nigeria and Rhodesia.”

The Post ran a full transcript of a memorial address from James Steele, the chairman of the Black Student Action Coordinating Committee at the time, on its opinion page.

“Like a true king, Martin Luther King Jr. lived his life for the people,” the speech reads. “When we were sad, he was sad. When we experienced joy, he was also joyed. Every peril we face, he faced.”

The speech continues with a description of King’s love of people and his dream of freedom.

“For 12 long and strenuous years, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reigned as the prince of peace,” the transcript reads. “But the King is dead. Who among us, white or black, has the fortitude to preach nonviolence, to face the same dangers and perhaps the same fate as Martin Luther King?”

Later that same day, about 200 students and faculty members held a sit-down for 30 minutes at the corner of Court and Union streets. 

The 1968 Athena yearbook included a spread about King’s death, which described the atmosphere on campus the day of the sit-down and memorial speech.

“The King is dead! It echoed in microphones; and hearts were horrified throughout the campus, country, and world,” page 359 of the Athena reads. “Martin Luther King Jr. started a dream, but a bullet couldn't shatter it.”

That page continues with a description of the future and what it would hold after his death.

“Now where will his dream go?” the page reads. “We talk about the coup d'etats of South America, and the street riots in Europe, but when will we stop destroying our Kennedys and Luthers. Let us not scatter after the black arm bands have been put away.”


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