The reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. after his "I Had a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C.

‘I hope that a white man hasn’t done it’ – teachers who were teens during MLK’s assassination tell their stories

(Photo used by permission of Wikimedia under Creative Commons license)
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. after his “I Had a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.

Fifty years ago today, on April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray shot and killed activist and leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr. Here’s what three teachers who were teenagers at the time remember about that day.


History teacher Sue Nellis (13 years old)

I don’t specifically remember what I was doing, but I do specifically remember what I was thinking.

My first thought was, “Oh my God, this is awful.”

My immediate second thought was, “I hope that a white man hasn’t done it.”

1968 was a horrible year of violence and assassinations, and I have such clear memories of John Kennedy being assassinated when I was 8. Having MLK and then Bobby Kennedy not long after that, it was just horrifying. I couldn’t believe that this was happening again.

I was worried about the riots that it might cause because people were so stunned.

After the sadness came a lot of anger.

I remember feeling so badly for people that were more affected than I was – who was living in a white suburban neighborhood in Los Angeles. I thought about what it really meant to lose a man like that, especially in that horrible way.

I remember seeing that picture of Andrew Young and all those other guys standing on the balcony at the back of the hotel, pointing to where the shooter came from and to King, who’s lying on the balcony there.

(Photo used by permission of Wikimedia under Creative Commons license)
The picture of Andrew Young and other men pointing to where James Earl Ray had been when he shot and killed Martin Luther King, Jr.

That image is plastered in my head. It was sad and frightening to see.

Because there had been the Watts Riots in ’66, student unrest from the Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive in January, there were concerns – this act didn’t surprise me, unfortunately.


English teacher Patricia Fels (14 years old)

I was a freshman on the junior varsity tennis team at my school in Phoenix, Arizona.

Our coach would always take everyone out for ice cream sundaes if everyone won her match, and that day we all had won, so we went to the ice cream parlor.

Everyone was excited.

I remember getting up for some reason – maybe to go to the bathroom – and I heard the radio playing (in the parlor). (Reporters) were talking about an assassination and community-wide shock, and I was totally confused.

So I turned to the woman behind the counter and asked her what had happened, and she said, “Oh, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis.” And then she kept on working.

I still remember it was such an incredible shock to me because four years before John Kennedy (had been) assassinated, and I felt that assassinations were something that had never happened before.

I remember sitting down and trying to eat my sundae but being incredibly upset.

It’s like a watershed moment for my generation, the assassinations of those three men: John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy

In fact, there was a popular song that was written shortly after called “Abraham (Lincoln), Martin and John,” which also mentions Bobby Kennedy.

Once that song came out, I immediately could think about only this.


Latin teacher Jane Batarseh (19 years old)

I can’t remember! I was a freshman in college, completely unaware of anything – ignorant! And an idiot!

I was basking in an atmosphere where I was happy for maybe the first time in my life.

That, paired with me being in a small liberal arts college (that was) rich, white, conservative and out in the middle of nowhere along the Mississippi River – a place where everybody was Republican – made me completely unaware of what was happening in our country.

Looking back, Principia (College) was a waste of four years. It’s pretty serious that I didn’t know about (King’s death).

—By Chardonnay Needler 

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