On the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, members of the TU community reflect on his legacy
On April 4, 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis while supporting striking sanitation workers.
King gained national prominence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, leading the civil rights movement until his death. His use of nonviolent tactics and civil disobedience in advancing his causes inspired a generation of activists.
Fifty years later, the effects of his assassination continue to reverberate around the nation. Racism, poverty and economic inequality are still prominent themes in the national discussion. Social justice movements aimed at different causes—Black Lives Matter, #TimesUp, #MeToo, #NeverAgain—have all taken up King’s mantle.
Towson University's Center for Student Diversity (CSD) Director of Student Success Programs Raft Woodus ‘77, College of Liberal Arts (CLA) political science professor Donn Worgs, and students Joshua White and Vanessa Egbe reflect on King’s legacy and where it stands today.
Woodus—a Baltimore native and teenager during King’s rise—remembers an environment of accepted racism. He recounted hearing the n-word sung to him out the window of a passing school bus, at the top of the pupils’ voices.
But when King began leading the civil rights movement, people weren’t sure what to make of him.
“Some people were so glad he was saying what he was, that maybe the world would come to its senses and treat people as people,” Woodus said. “Another sentiment was ‘He’s crazy. We need to defend our communities because white people are not going to do that for us.’ Others feared someone is going to kill this man. He is not going to last because he is throwing it in everybody’s face.”
Woodus’ participation in civil rights demonstrations started young, when his mother took her five children to a lunch counter to eat. He was about six.
“I could tell something was happening here. I didn’t quite understand what, but I knew it was a big deal,” he said. “We had lunch, we got up and we walked out. It really worked out OK because some of us were pretty small.”
He took no part in the Baltimore race riots that destroyed parts of the city, but he does recall peacefully protesting at, among other places, a public library where he felt the collection did not include enough black authors and titles about black people.
In the 50 years since King’s death, his image has become for some a warm civic memory, despite being perceived at the time as a disruptive force—by blacks and whites alike.
“I think the sanitized version of Dr. King has in some ways helped spread his message to become more popular and spread his message, which now comes across as universal and non-controversial,” said Worgs. “His persona may now reach folks who he may not have impacted if they were contemporaries or people who were more put off by the more ‘radical’ King.
“On the other hand, it may undermine the mobilization behind the things he was working for because folks don’t know where he stood on those [issues]. If folks knew he thought a certain way, it might legitimize certain positions. Third, it might serve as an obstacle. Folks might say, ‘Well, Dr. King is not about being disruptive’ and use it to criticize folks taking a knee at games, when in reality he was all about disruption.”
King’s legacy is built on nonviolent protest, and living and acting through love, concepts that have inspired TU students Joshua White ’18, president of the Black Student Union, and Vanessa Egbe ‘19, who is a SAGE mentor and member of the SGA.
“He didn’t hold any public office. He rose on his own merits,” said White. “The reason he was able to rise to such prominence was he put words at the forefront of his arsenal. He spoke with such earnestness and truth that it compelled people to follow him.
“In today’s age, one thing I know is a movement needs a leader, and I think we’ve gotten away from that—especially in the black community—I think Martin Luther King was that quintessential leader,” White added. “I haven’t made a conscious effort to imitate or pursue any routes he took, but I believe in seeing that he made those things possible, it made me think it was possible.”
Near the end of his life, King expanded his focus to include ending the Vietnam War and attacking poverty in the U.S. Racial tensions, war, poverty, immigration and women’s rights are still issues being advanced by activists, and Woodus, Worgs, White and Egbe all agree King’s beliefs and philosophies can still be applied today—even as the struggles are taken to Twitter and YouTube and espoused by young people.
“One of his principles was being loving and accepting of people,” said Egbe. “In the face of immigration, for example, accepting people who are different from you and giving love as opposed to hate—even if you don’t agree—is a better approach than hostility. Remember who you are and to use your platform to be loving, even in disagreement. It’s easier for others to hear your message if it’s not masked in hate.”
Woodus was also inspired by King’s belief in love as the way forward.
“I think he would continue to speak about his basic principles,” said Woodus. “If we are trying to treat people the way we want to be treated, there’s a way to do that. Even though it’s 2018, I feel like a lot of things are the same, depending on where you are.”
“At the core of his beliefs was human dignity, equality and love,” he said. “His positions came from that perspective and, of course, an aversion to violence and war. I think starting at that position, I think you would be justified saying Dr. King would be for protecting the rights and preserving the dignity of various groups because that was what he fought against—systems that dehumanized and denigrated. If you follow the evolution of his ideas, it really was all about dignity, respect, brotherly/sisterly love and the inherent dignity of all people.”
Looking around campus, Woodus sees plenty of evidence of King’s legacy at TU.
“I see a lot of it,” he noted. “The fact there is a Center for Student Diversity and that white students go to classes where black people teach the lessons. The fact that black people can go to the president’s office, protest and not get their heads beaten in and arrested. The fact that people from different races can love each other and walk around campus holding hands and not feel the kind of fear you used to feel. That there are multicultural student organizations and an effort by this community to make a better connection to Baltimore City to improve the number of high school students going to college. There’s so much.”
“He’s a good representation of what it would be for me to press forward in situations
where I’m at a standstill. There are battles and other forces coming toward you telling
you ‘No, you can’t do this’ or ‘I won’t let you do this,’ and he inspires me to move
forward. I know there are points in history that other people have had way worse things
happen to them, and they moved forward. That also reminds me to be grateful for what
“I think keeping his legacy alive is realizing there’s a lot of issues and there’s not just the one pertaining to you. [For example] even though you’re a man, you should be fighting for women’s rights, for equal pay. Even if you’re not black, you should be supporting whatever movement fully liberates black people and your fellow citizens. I think Dr. King, in realizing there were other global issues, also realized that his talents could be needed there.”
“The whole concept of ‘agape love,’ a set of principles he spoke about. Regardless of who a person is, you treat them with common courtesy and respect. That just seems to me that it would solve a whole lot of issues in the world if we could just get that one right.”
“I had a family connection to him. My father’s first cousin was a labor leader in New York, and he was very supportive of King. There was always a family story, but I didn’t appreciate it until my cousin passed in the mid-‘90s and all these civil rights folks came out, and they talked about what that relationships was like. It gave me some perspective on King — my cousin as well — and the labor aspect: supporting labor and having relationships with unions. The economic aspect of his vision that we see in later years, he was already thinking about that for a while, earlier than we think. He died in Memphis supporting the sanitation workers, but he was interested in economic justice a lot earlier than that.”
This story is one of several related to President Kim Schatzel's priorities for Towson University: Creating a More Diverse and Inclusive Campus