Still searing 45 years later
Benjamin Collins still remembers the shock of the moment 45 years ago tonight.
Then a young man working as one of the few black police officers in High Point, Collins had an evening off on April 4, 1968. As he watched television, a news bulletin flashed on the screen. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis. The civil rights leader was in the Tennessee city to support striking sanitation workers.
Collins, who admired King, was stunned. King — an unmatched orator who the night before gave a stirring speech about going to the mountaintop and seeing the promised land — died in moments from an assassin’s bullet.
“It means everything to me today,” said Collins, who has a portrait of King on the wall of his east High Point home.
As the nation begins the second term of its first black president — when interracial couples have become so commonplace as to go unnoticed in public, when children of different skin colors share stories at a school lunchroom table — the racial turmoil that culminated in King’s death can seem far removed. His assassination capped a volatile decade that saw demonstrators clubbed or sprayed with high-velocity fire hoses for seeking to end segregation, that saw high-profile elected officials turn away black students at schoolhouse doors.
King’s killing 45 years ago this week put a nation already on edge on alert.
The day after King was shot, all police officers in High Point were called into duty because of the possibility of disturbances related to his death, said Collins, who retired after serving as a police officer and investigator for the Public Defender’s Office. No mayhem happened in High Point, he said, though disturbances did take place in other parts of the country.
“As we reflect back on the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King, I think it’s striking both how far we’ve come as a nation and how far we still have to go. Obviously, the election of a black president would have been unfathomable in 1968, and the belief in white supremacy is no longer a publicly credible position in any region of the country. On the other hand, we still have significant racial divides in income, education, housing and the criminal justice system,” said Paul Ringel, assistant professor of history at High Point University. “I hope Dr. King’s legacy inspires us both to take pride in our accomplishments and to strive for justice in all forms and for all Americans in the future.”
In his final speech on April 3, 1968, which now seems eerie to hear, King talked about how he “may not get there with you” to the “promised land.” But he affirmed, in his booming voice, that he believed the nation would reach the land King saw from his rhetorical mountaintop.
For all the issues that America continues to confront, Collins said, he recognizes that the country has become a far better and fairer place in the 45 years since King gave his life for grand causes.
On the night when King was killed, if someone had told Collins that in the space of 40 years the nation would elect a black man president, he wouldn’t have believed it possible.
“It’s amazing — I never thought it would happen in my lifetime,” he said.
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