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Alums Share Memories of Dark Days of April 1968

Vivid recollections of grief and turmoil five decades later

John Bryant (STH’70) was standing on the corner outside the School of Theology on the night of April 4, 1968, exactly 50 years ago, when a car full of young white men pulled up in front of him. “They rolled down their windows and yelled, ‘We got your Martin Luther Coon,’” he recalls. Bryant knew instantly that Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) had been assassinated, and he rushed to Mugar Memorial Library to tell his girlfriend (now his wife), Cecelia Williams (CAS’68, GRS’70).

Bryant was among dozens of BU alumni who answered when the Alumni Association reached out to the classes of 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, and 1972, asking them to share their memories of where they were the night of April 4, 1968. Many responded with vivid recollections of how and where they heard the news of the civil rights leader’s murder and the unrest that shook Boston in the days that followed.

Read some of their stories below.

April 4, 1968

Laura Moorhead (DGE’68) was at a meeting of the Audubon Court Dormitory Council with her roommate, Elissa (Conger) Armstrong (DGE’68), when someone ran in to report that King had been shot in Memphis. “It was as if the world stopped for me,” says Moorhead, who today lives in Long Beach, Calif. “Dr. King was my lifelong hero—a symbol of firm resolve and eloquence in the face of oftentimes vicious treatment at the hands of mobs, Southern elected officials, and police authorities alike. He was the reason I wanted to attend BU.”

Moorhead, the only nonwhite representative on the council, immediately asked that the dorm meeting be canceled, but the organizers refused. “I thought, if this had happened to President Johnson, they would have stopped the meeting,” she says.

That evening, remembers Arline Gertzoff (SED’68,’69), then a student teacher at the Meadowbrook School in Weston, Mass., the campus and the city of Boston were absolute mayhem. Students took to the streets, although they were told to return to their dorms and stay there. “I was at Towers and we filled the lounge,” she recalls. “We saw on TV that there were riots and looting all over and many cars were trashed. It really was bedlam. It was even worse in Roxbury. Anything that could be lifted was a projectile.”

James Seymour (CFA’71) was at Myles Standish Hall when he heard about King’s death. He went searching for his best friend, Irving Lee (CFA’71), who was black (Seymour is white), but Lee had already left for his home in Harlem. “Everything stopped for black folks everywhere, those rioting in the streets and others huddled together trying to find a reason, I’m sure, to believe that any justice still existed in their country,” says Seymour, who had marched with King and thousands of others the previous year in New York City at the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam march.

Triptych showing views of the crowd gathered at a memorial service on for Martin Luther King, Jr. the day after he was assassinated, Marsh Plaza, Boston University, 1968

On April 5, 1968, thousands of BU faculty, staff, and students gathered on Marsh Plaza as the University held a service of penitence.

April 5, 1968

The following day, the University held a service of penitence that drew thousands of faculty, staff, and students to Marsh Plaza, and the same day announced the creation of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Professorship of Social Ethics at the School of Theology, according to Transformations: a History of Boston University, by Kathleen Kilgore.

Micaela Amateau-Amato (CFA’68) writes that “we were all on Marsh Plaza feeling defiance, fear, grief; preparing how to move forward so that his death would not be in vain.” Jayne Barnes (SED’71,’72) remembers thinking how important it was that the campus be a model for social justice and compassion, “knowing how tense the situation could become.”

The singer James Brown was scheduled to perform at Boston Garden the evening of April 5. At the last minute, city officials negotiated to televise the concert and broadcast it live on WGBH, Boston’s public television station, in hopes of keeping people off the streets and returning calm to the city, an event that remains fresh in the memory of many of those who were at BU then.

“It is to this day one of the more memorable moments of my life, both for the music and its significance in history,” says Peter Burchard (DGE’69, CAS’72). “James was credited with handling the danger of violence right where it might have begun, in such a way as to save Boston from going up in flames.”

Moorhead doesn’t see it that way. “I remember feeling that James Brown was being used to pacify Roxbury—as if a televised music concert, a piece of entertainment, was an appropriate response to what had happened, instead of say, a town hall meeting to discuss the issues,” she says. “I remember seeing Mayor Kevin White introduce James Brown, smiling as if to say, ‘Watch this and please don’t lash out in the streets.’”

April 9, 1968

The day of MLK’s funeral, more than 10,000 people marched from Boston Common to Post Office Square to attend a memorial service. An article in the Boston College newspaper The Heights estimated that another 5,000 marched from Marsh Chapel. The crowd was young, mostly students, and “the grief was overwhelming,” Kilgore notes in her BU history, “and so was the anger.”

“You, white America, have been condemned by God Almighty for murder in the first degree,” said Bryant, speaking at the event. “You are always saying you are a sorry bunch of people. Don’t give us your tears and your words of sympathy, because we don’t believe in them anymore. We don’t believe you when you say that those who live by the sword shall die by the sword. You, white America, have been living by the sword. Is there no repentance?”

Ed Coaxum speaks at a memorial service on for Martin Luther King, Jr. the day after he was assassinated, Marsh Plaza, Boston University, 1968

Ed Coaxum (LAW’69) spoke to thousands of students at Marsh Plaza before they marched to Post Office Square for a memorial service the day of MLK's funeral.

April 24, 1968

In the days after King’s death, members of Umoja, BU’s black student union, “discouraged with what they perceived as lack of progress,” called an emergency meeting for all black students, where they decided to take over the administration building at 147 Bay State Road, according to Kilgore’s book.

Moorhead was among the students who occupied the building. The Umoja officers read Arland Christ-Janer, then BU’s president, a list of demands that included adding books on black history to Mugar Memorial Library. “We were asked by the then school president if there existed enough books to fill a library shelf,” she recalls. Among other proposals were recruiting 100 additional black high school students to the University, extending the admissions deadline for black students (the deadline had already closed for the next academic year), and renaming STH for King, the only demand that wasn’t met.

Aftermath

Richard Olson (STH’72) says that his classes after King died focused almost exclusively on the slain civil rights leader, his teachings, and his philosophy. He recalls that one particular day during the Models and Methods of Christian Ethics seminar his professor initiated a discussion of how King’s nonviolent philosophy impacted America. Everyone participated except the only African American student in the class, Olson says, and the professor eventually asked for his thoughts. “He was silent for a few moments, and then blurted, ‘What’s the use of talking? Nothing’s going to change anyway.’”

The African American student stayed silent, as did the rest of the class. Shortly, though, he started talking about what he had admired and all he had hoped for. Inspired by King, he said, he had chosen to attend BU specifically because it was the civil rights leader’s alma mater. Now he wasn’t so sure. Olson remembers him saying that he wanted to believe that change could come, but there seemed to be little reason to believe it. “For a time, he collapsed into sobs, then went on, still sad but a little calmer. When he again fell into silence and seemed to be through, the class was dismissed.”

Moorhead was a 17-year-old sophomore in 1968. King’s death, along with Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in June and the riots that erupted during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, led to a fundamental change in the way she and members of her generation saw the world.

“Beginning with King’s assassination, my worldview, my trust in the nation’s leadership, and my ideas about what I could do with my life were permanently altered,” she says.

3 Comments
Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

3 Comments on Alums Share Memories of Dark Days of April 1968

  • Heather Wallace on 04.04.2018 at 9:58 pm

    I was a freshman (CLA 71) when Dr. King was assassinated. I remember BU closed and we were instructed to go to our rooms on campus or to go home, since race riots were expected. Dr. King had received his Doctor of Theology at BU. It was a scary time.

  • Marcia Wells Avery on 04.06.2018 at 11:30 am

    In 1968, I was a sophomore enrolled in the now extinct School of Nursing. On the day of the take over of the administration building, I had clinical and had to be at the hospital. When I returned to campus, I walked to the administration building and was pulled up to the second story window on a rope. A reporter captured it all and it was reported on the news. My father happened to see the evening news (that’s another story).

  • Darrell Abbott on 11.22.2018 at 12:05 pm

    I am not a historian but I do remember the BU student elections because I was very much a part of it along with Gerry Ducharme. He ran for president and I was on the ticket running for vice president. We won the election fairly handily as I recall, and totally disrupted the SDS movement, at least at BU, after which Gerry disappeared and left me holding the bag, if you will, having to take over as President. My understanding was that he ended up going to Berkley in California to do the same thing but I was never able to confirm but it was rumored that the CIA was somehow involved which may atone for why there seems to be very little info on this. I resigned the position in the fall of 1968 stating that I had three responsibilities, one to my education, secondly to the BU Hockey program and thirdly to the student body and I didn’t think it was right that the students should be third on my list. Yes, I was there when the Black community took over the admin buildings and was asked to present their demands to the trustees since I was the president of the student body at the time. There is a front page news article with most of the election details. I cannot seem to find any of this info in any reports of of the 1968 student elections but I do have the newspaper article:). Not sure who will be reading this but at my age, memories like this come back to, I guess create one’s legacy for their grand children etc. and kinda fun to reflect. I don’t mean to be egotistical, albeit I suppose I am being just that, but I noted that the reporting of my goal against Ken Dryden in the Christmas Hockey tournament in 1966 was totally miss interpreted, but that is another story. Guess I am just on a rampage in my old age.

    I also found it interesting that there is very little info on this event anywhere to be found and in fact the book that talks about “who’s who in US Colleges and Universities for 1968 has gone missing. My Mother had a copy but has since been lost. She had it sent to her because my name was noted in the back of the book as a last minute addition. I am not sure if this is the correct spelling of his name but Arland Chris-Janer was the President of BU at the time and I was part of the President’s Host which was an organization that welcomed new students to the university operating out of what I believe is now the new Alumni residence. If any of this is of interest i would enjoy reminiscing with whomever:). There was a whole issue of planning Homecoming in the Fall of 1968 where we had planned to have Sammy Davis Junior, Harry Belafonte and Aretha Franklyn put on a concert at Nickerson Field to raise scholarship funds in the name of Dr. Martin Luther King. This never came about but Coretta King did join us at the event held in the armory which back then was located where the Agganis arena now sits.

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