Originally created 01/18/98

Residents remember civil rights leader



Edward C. Riley was talking with a friend outside the maintenance department at the Youth Development Center when the announcement came over the radio: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was dead.

"I was stunned and shocked," he said. "My mind just went back to the times I was with him. I told the students about him and what he meant to black people. This man did wonderful things."

April 4 will mark the 30th anniversary of the death of Dr. King. On Monday, the nation will remember his birth.

Whether it was at the workplace or in the classroom, many can remember the moment they heard the news that the civil rights leader who had led the revolt against racial injustices had been assassinated.

"I was standing in a magazine shop in Berkley, Calif.," Shirley A.R. Lewis, president of Paine College, said of hearing about Dr. King's death. "I remember that I stepped out of the store and called my husband so I could grieve with him."

During the two opportunities she had had to talk with Dr. King, the inspiration he provided allowed her to harness her anger and take on a spirit of determination to continue his work, she said.

"I felt a combination of regret and anger. I felt sorrow, anger and disappointment," she said. "I remember him as a part of history and as a real human being. His struggle for justice and equality has made a lifetime impression upon me."

His assassination wasn't a surprise to people who listened to Dr. King's speeches that carried the tone of his impending death, said Roy C. DeLamotte, a retired Paine College professor.

"I was crossing the campus at Paine College when someone told me," he said. "I remember feeling shocked and sad when I heard. I was very sorrowful, but I felt it coming on. You could tell by the way he spoke, that he knew it was going to happen."

Dr. King's message of nonviolence and love toward all people gained him the respect of white people who appreciated his understanding of their race, Mr. DeLamotte said.

"He was a great inspiration to liberal Southerners who were inspired by him," he said. "The thing that impressed me the most was his understanding of white people. He appealed to our ideas that we believed in along with him. This ability to appeal to white people was something that extreme black leaders weren't able to do."

For those like Mr. Riley, a retired educator who came to know Dr. King as a friend and mentor, the sorrow from his death ran even deeper.

Mr. Riley was a senior at Alabama State University in Montgomery in 1954 when he acted as chauffeur for Dr. King, who had moved to the city to pastor Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

He got to experience Dr. King's dream first hand, watching him move toward being thrust into the helm of the civil rights movement.

"I shall never forget the night I went across that stage and he said, `Well, Georgia boy, you made it,"' Mr. Riley said of Dr. King, who was the guest speaker at his college graduation. "He was a dynamic man, with that melodious voice that would inspire you and motivate you."

The death of the leader was an irreplaceable loss to the rioters who violently expressed their contempt for the slaying of the man who devoted his life to nonviolent means of change.

There were minimal problems in Augusta as police set up blockades and imposed a curfew on the evening of his death, The Augusta Chronicle reported.

Black and white community leaders rallied together to prevent upheavals that ripped through the nation, leaving 14 dead.

The day after his assassination, more than 1,000 mourners filled Paine College's Gilbert-Lambuth Chapel to pay reverence and share their grief.

"He lived with the belief and hope that the balm of nonviolence would not merely soothe but ultimately heal the sin-sick evils of society," the Rev. M.S. Cherry said in a speech at the memorial service, printed in The Chronicle on April 6, 1968.

"For he taught that the basic tension in society is not between black and white, per se, but the tension, at bottom, is between justice and injustice. ... Let us wean ourselves of hatred and drape ourselves not with the mantle of mourning, but with the mantle of love. The rose perfumes the sole of the shoe that crushes it. So was the life and death of our martyr -- so let it be with us."