For many people in their 60s, 70s and 80s, details of that evening and the days to follow are remembered.
In Seattle, it was 4:01 in the afternoon of Thursday, April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was struck by a single bullet to his face. It was a soft-point, metal-jacketed bullet, fired from a high-velocity .30-06 rifle, and it expanded upon impact.
King had been standing on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had come to march with striking sanitation workers. Mortally wounded, his last word was, “Oh!”
For these six African Americans in Seattle, now in their 60s, 70s and 80s, some well-known, some everyday individuals, it is a day seared in their memories.
A Day of Remembrance
An evening of uplifting music and the spoken word starts at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 4, at Mount Zion Baptist Church, 1634 19th Ave., Seattle. Information: 206-778-6357.
Fifty years later, they remember all the little details of that afternoon and evening.
“I was carrying a beautiful glass table. I went limp. It came out of my hands and broke,” remembers De Charlene Williams, 75. The news had come over the radio. “I started crying. He was my man. I loved him. I had followed him ever since I was 15.”
Williams was 25, a single mom with a 6-year-old daughter. She had married at age 15.
That afternoon she was moving furniture into the De Charlene Beauty Shop & Boutique that she was opening and still has going at the corner of 22nd and Madison. These days, its one-story, 1,800-square-foot frame is overwhelmed by the new five-story box buildings all around.
She had worked three jobs to save the $7,500 to buy the little place — cleaning at a rehabilitation center for the disabled, waitressing at the Seattle Tennis Club and working at another beauty salon.
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She says she had been turned down by more than 30 banks and financial institutions before getting a loan. “I was a single, black woman,” Williams says, nearly unheard of as the buyer of a commercial building.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was pronounced dead at 5:05 p.m. Pacific Time at St. Joseph Hospital in Memphis.
“No internet back then. It was what was on the radio, and phoning people,” says Williams. The news wouldn’t be in the two daily Seattle papers until the next day. Local TV consisted of six broadcast stations.
The next day, Williams kept putting her shop together. Friends would stop by.
“People was crying and coming by. ‘Whatever are we going to do?’ ‘They killed Martin,’” she remembers their words.
Williams persevered through the next decades. Right next to her shop is the Central Area Chamber of Commerce that she founded in 1983.
But African-American-owned businesses in that neighborhood have been closing, and blacks make up a smaller and smaller chunk of the neighborhood’s population. She says developers keep approaching her, and she keeps turning them down.
Census figures show that in 1970, 73 percent of the Central Area’s population was black. By 2015 it was less than 20 percent and it is decreasing by the year.
If King could see what’s going on in her neighborhood, says Williams, “He’d think it was disgraceful. He fought so hard to make a place of hope where they’d have a home. Now they’re driving out the poor people and making two classes of people, the rich and the poor.”
Scenes from the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr.
Jailed for Franklin sit-in
Larry Gossett, 73, who’s been on the King County Council for 25 years, on that April 4 was in the King County Jail. Along with three others, a few days earlier, he had been charged with “unlawful assembly” at Franklin High School.
Gossett then was 23, attending the University of Washington and a campus activist. Five years earlier, he had graduated from Franklin.
He says a “conglomeration of problems” led to the sit-in.
Two black girls had been sent home and told to straighten their Afro hairstyles, he says. Black students were told images of leaders such as Dr. King or civil-rights activist Stokely Carmichael could not be put on the school walls. When black and white students fought, says Gossett, “they expelled the black kids, and the white kids were sent back to class.”
Gossett may be buttoned-down now, but back then he’d just come back from a stint as a VISTA volunteer in New York City, including Harlem, and wore shades, a dashiki and a big natural Afro.
“At the airport, my mother walked past me. She had no idea that was her son,” he recalled.
Things got tense that night in the jail.
“We stopped black inmates from jumping on white inmates,” remembers Gossett. “They thought Black Power was beating up on white inmates. We said, ‘Hell, no. Dr. King was a poor people’s champion, a champion of the men in this jail. We talked all night.”
The day after the assassination, The Seattle Times carried an unrelated story that begs mentioning today, a half-century later: “Police could do more to quiet Negro distrust, panelist declares.”
Gossett remembers the weeks and months following Dr. King’s assassination.
“The Black Student Union grew by leaps and bounds,” he remembers.
Before, he says, “In Seattle, black youths never rebelled. But we did.”
‘Everybody in disbelief’
At the Southeast Seattle Senior Center, at Rainier Avenue South and Holly Street on Thursday, a couple of dozen local residents gathered for the $4 lunch of fresh-made vegetable lasagna, a green salad, orange slices and garlic bread.
Among them was Ouida Garrett, 87, married 64 years to Leonard, 90, a retired Boeing computer programmer.
She had 14-year-old twins at home that night in 1968.
“I heard it on television. I was very sad. I wondered why something like this could happen. What was the purpose? What did they hope to gain?” she remembers.
Garrett was angry.
“It was murder. I prayed over it. I prayed that something good would come out of this evil thing,” she says.
Two months later, Garrett was again listening to the news that Bobby Kennedy was mortally wounded in the kitchen passageway at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, cut down by a .22-caliber revolver.
“Again, thou shalt not kill,” she says.
Next to her at the lunch table was Lawerence Lewis, 62. He was 14 back then, looking out his family’s home in the segregated part of Waterloo, Iowa.
“I was in my bedroom, looking out at people throwing rocks at cars. I was pretty scared,” he says. “Everybody was in disbelief.”
The neighborhood was in a rage about the assassination. There were riots, and for some reason, remembers Lewis, the police were guiding traffic onto his street.
At his age, he had heard of Dr. King but didn’t know much about him. “I knew he was some type of leader,” says Lewis.
But in the next days he learned.
“He was for the black community. He didn’t want violence,” says Lewis.
‘I was devastated’
Sheryl Willert was at home in Columbia, South Carolina, when the news of the assassination came on TV. She was 13.
Now 63, she is an attorney with William Kastner, where twice she has been managing director in the firm’s Seattle office. She has received the Loren Miller Bar Association’s Pioneering Woman Award, presented to African-American female attorneys who are trailblazers in the legal profession.
“I was devastated. Yes, I was very angry about what happened,” she remembers. “To me, this was wanting to silence African Americans around the nation.”
Her dad was a high-school principal, her mom an elementary-school librarian. There were seven kids in the family. Reading books and talking about current events was mandatory.
“I can remember sitting around the dinner table, wondering if there may be someone who’ll be the next victim,” says Willert.
She says, “My parents told me to be vigilant, to be on the lookout,”
She had gone to a Catholic school until junior high. Then it was a public school. Her parents believed in the public school system.
In a school of maybe 300 kids, maybe 10 to 15 were African American.
There were kids’ homes forbidden to Willert. The parents, “They would not allow people of color.”
Willert remembers a history teacher and how she’d say “Nigras.” Willert knew exactly what the teacher was doing, combining “Negro” and “nigger.”
She says, “One can laugh about it now.”
But five decades later, Willert still remembers.
‘I needed to vent’
Ron Sims, 69, is a former King County executive and a former deputy secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
He was 19 and attending Central Washington State College, now Central Washington University, in Ellensburg when Dr. King was killed.
With his parents being civil-rights activists in Spokane, “I grew up in a culture where I understood what was at stake.”
He remembers marching with them in that city because The Bon Marché department store would not hire African-American cashiers.
“Their premise was that white people would not take change from black people, not wanting to touch them,” says Sims.
When a man spit on Sims, “I wanted to hit him with my sign,” he remembers. “My dad grabbed me, saying, ‘Don’t be as low a person as he is.’”
Sims went home shortly after the assassination. His dad was a social worker and a Baptist pastor, his mom the human-resources director for the city of Spokane.
“I needed to vent. Many of us at that time thought peace will not work. We need to meet fire with fire,” remembers Sims. “I was just seething. ‘There’s gotta be some way for payback.’ ”
He remembers his dad, James Sims, telling him about the assassination and imploring him to never quit believing progress could be accomplished.
“Dr. King’s time had come,” he recalls his dad saying. “God doesn’t ask for your vote.”
And he remembers this, too, from his dad: “Anger doesn’t work.
“Don’t empower the haters.”