By Lew Finfer
Special to the Reporter
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. Protest and heroic, dogged work has continued in his name, but we certainly in some ways never recovered from his loss.
The city of Boston experienced riots protesting his death in Roxbury and Grove Hall. Think of the despair and anger that ensued when the most famous non-violent leader in the world was assassinated. After the riots subsided, African-American community leaders set up patrols that worked for weeks to keep the peace.
Some 30,000 people gathered for a memorial service for King on Boston Common four days after his death. And on that same day, 5,000 African Americans rallied at White Stadium in Franklin Park to ratify 21 demands from the Black United Front on community issues. A dozen leaders from this group met with then-Mayor Kevin White, who rejected their demands while agreeing to some more moderate ones put forward by the NAACP. Still among us who were at the meeting with White are Mel King, later a finalist for mayor in 1983, and Chuck Turner, later a Boston City Councillor.
Martin Luther King Jr. went to Boston University’s School of Divinity. He met his wife, Coretta Scott, here when she was attending the New England Conservatory of Music. He was an assistant minister at Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury. And he lived for a time at 303 Massachusetts Ave., right near the MBTA Station.
On April 22, 1965, he addressed a joint session of the Massachusetts Legislature, and said, “There is a desperate, poignant, and sometimes agonizing question on the lips of our generation….’Are we really making progress in the area of race relations? While we have come a long, long way in the struggle for brotherhood…we have still a long way to go … all men of goodwill all over this nation must work together passionately and unrelentingly to solve this problem. We must be able to say that we are through with segregation in all it dimensions, henceforth, and forevermore.”
While we don’t have legal school segregation today, we have great disparities between people of color and whites in income, health outcomes, education, and who goes to prison. In other words, we have a segregation of opportunity.
The day after his speech, King led a march of 25,000 (yes, 25,000) from the William E. Carter Playground in the South End to Boston Common. At the Common, he addressed the crowd, saying, “I would be dishonest to say that Boston is Birmingham or that Massachusetts was Mississippi. But it would be irresponsible for me to deny the crippling poverty and injustices that exist in some sections of the community. The vision of the New Boston must extend into the heart of Roxbury. Boston must become a testing ground for the ideals of freedom.” After the march and rally, King and a 12-member group of community leaders met with then-Mayor John Collins and presented him with what was called a “bill of particulars” about racial discrimination in housing, welfare, and jobs.
Our city has one of the biggest gaps between rich and poor in America. High housing prices and gentrification are displacing many tens of thousands and this must not be the New Boston that we are building now.
I was just 17 but I was shaken up by the assassination. I had heard on the radio that he’d been in Memphis to support the low-paid African-American sanitation workers who were on strike. I went out and went door to door collecting donations for the strike fund, then brought them to my high school where we collected more donations.
King was in the midst of his Poor People’s Campaign, attempting to broaden the agenda of the civil rights movement to push it beyond access to public spaces and voting rights and to take on poverty, wage, jobs, and education. I got involved in organizing people and donations for people to attend the Poor People’s Campaign rally in June 1968 and learned a great deal the local injustices we face in our neighborhoods and our city.
The day before he died, King preached a sermon called, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” In one of its passages he said, “Let us raise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.” We feel in our hearts that we still have this opportunity.
Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident.