By Susan Shinn Turner and Rhodes Woolly
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 50 years ago this month, on April 4, 1968, an event that immediately provoked nation-wide confusion and grief. One St. John’s member had a pivotal role in helping Salisbury residents deal with the uncertainty.
King was killed in Memphis, Tenn., on the evening of April 4, a Thursday. Following King’s death, marches took place across the country, some of which led to riots, the worst being in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington.
That was not the case in Salisbury, but it could have been were it not for some courageous leaders at Livingstone College and Mayor Paul Bernhardt, a member of St. John’s.
Mayor Bernhardt was known as a reconciler who had developed strong relationships with leaders from many different backgrounds, including the African American community. When he learned that Livingstone students were planning a march from the college to the Court House, he knew it was time to leverage those relationships. In reaching out to leaders at Livingstone, he quickly learned of their intention.
“We are all Americans,” said Rev. Robert Clayton, a Livingstone professor, in comments to Post reporter Ned Cline. “We are not here to riot, but to proclaim our belief in the ideals of Martin Luther King. We will not throw bricks, but we will throw ballots.”
The next morning, a group of 700 Livingstone College students slowly marched from their campus to the old courthouse on North Main Street, a process that took about an hour. There was tension everywhere, but Bernhardt thought it was important to give the students space to grieve and protest.
In a highly symbolic decision, Mayor Bernhardt joined the march, walking side-by-side with Livingstone’s student leaders.
“These are trying times,” said George Miller, student body president. “We ask only for equal rights, because white supremacy is killing America.”
Cline ended the Post article by writing, “The whole affair was orderly and at no time was there any indication of trouble.”
Raemi Evans, who lives in her grandparents’ house across from the college, says that she remembers the event as a peaceful occasion. Evans helped to integrate the faculty at Boyden High School in 1967. It later became a fully integrated school and was renamed Salisbury High School. She remained there until her retirement.
That Sunday, Bernhardt gathered with blacks and whites at First Calvary Baptist Church to pay tribute to King.
In the Post article written about the event, Bernhardt said that the civil rights leader would have been proud of the citizens of Salisbury. “His life was dedicated to a great ideal, and his methods of non-violence will live on.”
Bernhardt, Evans said recently, “was a mayor who was very interested in keeping a good relationship with the African-American community.”
The Rev. Doug Fritz, pastor of St. John’s at the time, also participated in the service, saying “Our hope is that King will be able to do in death what he could not do in life.” That is, bring peace.
But peace takes courageous leaders — leaders like Paul Bernhardt and Robert Clayton, unlikely friends in challenging times.