Newark has been a stage on which many famous people from the past have trod including Washington, Talleyrand, and Lafayette. In recent memory, none has been better known, liked, or respected than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who visited here just eight days before his assassination in a Memphis hotel.
While no one is still around who saw the city’s early visitors ride down Broad Street, dine in a colonial tavern, or attend a fancy reception in the biggest house in town, many Newarkers can vividly detail Dr. King’s final trip to Newark. On that red-letter day for Newark—March 27, 1968—many people had the privilege of shaking his hand when he spoke at South Side (Shabazz) High School. Others had the privilege of dining with him at New Jersey Bell or got to meet him at a rally at Abyssinian Baptist Church. These personal connections make the late civil rights leader more real to us. For all his triumphs and tragedies were ours too.
Born in 1929 in Atlantic where his father was pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, King became associated with the Montgomery city bus segregation case in 1955-56 after organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Advocating nonviolent resistance he led civil marches throughout the South during the 1950s and ‘60s, resulting in hundreds of arrests of those following his dream. His March on Washington in 1963 brought nearly 250,000 people to the District of Columbia. The following year he received the Nobel Peace Prize.
During King’s final visit to our city, residents of the Clinton Hill section lined the streets as 1600 South Side students warmly greeted him and applauded a speech in which he implored them to 'stand with determination, militantly but nonviolently.' King’s parting words were these, 'we must recognize our dignity and worth as human beings… the doors of opportunity are opening now, and we’ve got to be ready to enter…Set out early to discover what you are going to do in life… Be the best of whatever you are. We must feel that we do belong and we do count…' As he left South Side students leaned out of every window to bid him adieu. 'It was just enough for me to shake his hand and pull his tie,' said one student. Another offered, 'He was always for everybody.'
At Abyssinian, King gave his blessings to everyone who reached out to greet him and spoke of his next project, one that would take him South to undertake a Poor People’s Campaign. Although he felt compelled to preach to the emotionally charged crowd, time and tight schedule did not permit him to do so. Earlier, he had lunch with executives of New Jersey Bell and visited Newark’s United Community Corp. headquarters where he mingled with local leaders and talked to students from St. Benedict’s Prep. 'All in all, March 27 was a great day for Dr. King and his admirers' said Bill Payne brother of Rep. Donald Payne (D-10th Dist.). 'His hold on the hearts of thousands of blacks and whites has been demonstrated again and again.' The next morning Bill Payne was invited to ride to Manhattan with Dr. King but was unable to go because of a previous engagement. 'I told Dr. King I’d see him the next time he visited,' said Payne, remembering the moment as if it were yesterday. As King drove off, he waved goodbye through the back window not only to Payne but to Newark and to a never-to-be forgotten chapter in American history.
The shot that ended his life was indeed one heard around the world and in all the Newarks of America. Disbelief. Anger. Revenge. All kinds of emotions raged. Just after the assassination Douglas Eldrige, then a reporter for the Newark Evening News, asked Newark leaders their views on the assassination. To some, the event clearly signaled the end of the nonviolent era. Dr. Timothy Still responded, 'We have passed a point of no return in our society.' Said James Hooper of the Congress of Racial Equality, 'The leadership of nonviolence has met a violent end.' The Rev. Nathan Wright Jr., an Episcopal priest who had convened the 1967 Black Power Conference in Newark, cited, 'another instance of mounting open lawlessness.' Fred Means, of the Organization of Negro Educators remarked that, 'there is quite a natural tendency for people to think in terms of revenge' but hoped that people would think in terms of what Dr. King represented. Kenneth Gibson, Newark’s future mayor, said, 'King was the only man in the country who could go into any town and influence the vast majority of people.' Rev. William E. Hedgebeth noted simply, 'He was the greatest Negro leader we’ve had.' Calvin D. West, then a city councilman, offered, 'I don’t know how people could have so much hate in their hearts,' while veteran councilman Irvine I. Turner claimed King, 'kept himself too open to his enemies.' As a longtime observer of the political scene, Eldrige said he was struck by King’s basic consistency, his eloquence, the earnest tone of his statements, and the ecstatic receptions welcoming him wherever he went. 'I still count King’s visit as one of the brightest days in Newark,' Eldrige later remarked.
News of King’s assassination prompted Gov. Richard J. Hughes to declare a statewide day of mourning. Newark’s Mayor Hugh J. Addonizo, closed all public schools and city agencies and ordered flags on public buildings lowered to half-staff. And Police Director Dominick Spina closed the city’s bars and package stores. While a few reports of trouble made news in scattered parts of the city, Newark remained peaceful. In respect for the fallen leader, church bells tolled 39 times one for each year in King’s life—at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock. City firehouses and police stations were draped in black and purple and a general hush fell over the city. At Newark State (now Kean) College in Union 1,700 people attended a memorial service led by Dr. Joachim Prinz of Temple B’nai Abraham. A longtime friend of the slain civil rights leader, the rabbi was one of the 10 local religious leaders who accompanied King to Washington for the 1963 march. At the same time prayers were read in all the parochial schools throughout the Archdiocese of Newark.
Legacy Lives On
Three years after her husband's death Coretta Scott King came to Newark Symphony Hall as part of a national fund-raising effort for the King Memorial in Atlanta. In 1976, John McGhee of the Newark Bicentennial Commission honored King as part of the commission's year-long American birthday celebration. And in 1979 King was honored during a celebration on the City Hall steps for giving us 'hope for today and peace for tomorrow.' In 1983, on the 20th anniversary of the first March on Washington, 47 busloads of Newarkers led by leaders including Kitty Taylor, went to Washington carrying the message that 'people were more important than arms.' Four years later, Newarkers again took part in a national project contributing articles to a 500-pound, seven-foot-long time capsule prepared in King's memory.
Symbols of respect and admiration for King are found all around us today. A plaque at the southern end of Military Park was recently transferred to the new Dr. Martin Luther King Court House. The Essex County College Library was renamed in honor of the fallen warrior, and High Street has become King Boulevard. John McGhee, president of the People's Association to the Memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for years has led an effort to create a statue in his memory. He sees the grounds of Essex County College, opposite the seated statue of Abraham Lincoln at the front of the Essex County Court House, as an appropriate setting. Truly, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of America's most unique men.