Churches hosted special prayer services. Seattle Public Schools dismissed students early. Meanwhile, staff reporters and photographers scrambled locally — and in Washington, D.C. — to capture the impact of the great leader Martin Luther King Jr.'s death.
It was the afternoon of April 4, 1968, and news of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death dominated radio airwaves across the country.
Seattle Times journalists sprung into action.
Reporters and photographers fanned out to classrooms and grocery stores to capture locals’ grief through interviews and photographs, subjects of which ranged from friends of King to business leaders to people on the street. Most were shocked.
Some already spread optimism and hope that the great leader’s death would inspire more activism, or momentum for the city’s “equal-opportunity programs” already under way.
Page designers and photography staff filled the newspaper displays with portraits of those grieving, as well as action pictures of the D.C. protests and discussions among students and church-goers honoring King’s legacy.
“I am shocked and discouraged,” then Mayor J.D. Braman said in that issue. “Though not all of us may have agreed with his tactics, we all certainly agree with his goals.”
Stories shared the mourning of labor leaders and elected officials, including then-Gov. Daniel Evans and Arthur A. Fletcher, a Pasco city councilman at the time, who said the shooting prompted him to join Washington’s race for lieutenant governor as the first black candidate for a statewide office. He lost to the incumbent.
“Martin Luther King possibly will have a more powerful influence on the civil-rights movement in the grave than he did on earth. You can kill the man but not the idea,” Fletcher told the newspaper.
Journalists also contacted Rev. Dr. John H. Adams, a pastor at First African Methodist Episcopal Church and leader of Seattle’s civil rights movement. He had gone to graduate school with King in Boston and told reporters he last saw the King less than two months before his assassination.
“Let’s understand that there is no other Martin Luther King floating around,” he said, describing hope that the death inspired “many men” at the local and national level to get involved in “the nonviolent revolution for justice,” according to the story.
In the opinion pages, the newspaper’s editorial board urged the House of Representatives to approve the Fair Housing Act in honor of Dr. King, which it did one week later.
Churches across Seattle and Washington hosted special prayer services and silent marches in King’s honor, with leaders pushing messages “to help white people understand the need of open housing, integrated schooling, financial aid and ‘most importantly’ the aspirations of black people,” an inside story said.
Seattle Public Schools held discussions on human rights and dismissed students early for the day, and the newspaper reported a few complaints about the different let-go times. Among them was a woman who said though she could not condone the shooting, she “did not believe it should be used as a civil rights forum.”
An inside spread the day after the assassination also included a reflection by an assistant city editor, Lane Smith, on King’s visits to Seattle, including his 1961 appearance at Garfield High School that drew some criticism. Among opponents was a Seattle woman who told the School Board she objected on the grounds King was a “controversial figure known to be associated with causes inimical to the United States.”
No other speech, in Smith’s recollection, matched King’s articulateness.
Beyond grief and shock, the April 5th newspaper covered the aftermath of the city’s first-ever sit-in days before at Franklin High School, where five young people were arrested, including now-King County Council member Larry Gossett. Supporters pooled together money to help pay the their bail, says a story. A photo depicted a crowd of young people at the county courthouse for a hearing for their arrests.
Then, the next day, a first-person column by Washington, D.C., Bureau Chief William Prochnau detailed a chaotic — and biased by today’s standards — account of rioting in D.C. on the front page, under a national wire story with the headline, “Fresh Looting, Arson Fires Flare in Nation’s Capital.” The piece described “hundreds of looters” shouting, throwing things and taunting cops or reporters, unjustly painting the journalists as innocent onlookers and black protesters as hostile and unreasonable.
“The tear gas floats through and everyone is crying and spitting the foul taste into the street,” Prochnau wrote. “The white reporters, fear beginning to knot their stomach muscles, start to look for a way out.”
The next edition on April 7 spotlights a 1965 Seattle visit by King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, and feature story on King’s father, as well as verbatim reflections from elementary school students on the death.
“Rev. Martin Luther King was a great man. The death of this man was a terrible tragedy not only to black people but to white people,” wrote one student of Northgate Elementary School.
“I think that if the assassin would have thought it over more carefully he would not have done it,” wrote a classmate.
“This incident will be hard to get out of your and my brain,” another said.