King’s legacy lives

Published 6:50 pm Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King was shot at a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.

And like the death of President John F. Kennedy, many people in Vicksburg are able to recall where they were and what they were doing.

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But some in Vicksburg have special memories of King, who in the summer of 1964 spoke to a standing room only crowd at Pleasant Green M.B. Church on Bowman Street.

“The church was completely packed,” said Henry Hunter, who attended the event. “There wasn’t even standing room. I was standing in one of the windows. We had armed guards all around the place.”

“It was in the heat of the civil rights movement here in Vicksburg,” said John Ferguson, who also attended. “As a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, we were responsible for getting him to come here, and he agreed to come and get other people involved in the civil rights movement. That was the reason that he came.”

Ferguson and Hunter said the atmosphere in Vicksburg’s black community was excited to know King was coming to speak.

“It was a milestone, both for Vicksburg and Mississippi,” Ferguson said.

“We had read about him, heard about him, seen him on the news, but that was the first time any of us had the opportunity to see him,” Hunter said.

And both men remember how the news of King’s death four years later affected them.

“I was devastated,” Hunter said. “It was just like a member of the family passed on.”

Ferguson was in the Army and stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, when he learned of King’s death.

“I was really not only shocked and surprised, but obviously hurt about the absence of his leadership for that time,” he said.

Ironically, Ferguson’s unit was called and sent to Chicago, Illinois, as a precaution in case riots erupted in the city like they had in other major cities in the wake of King’s death.

“It (the riots) didn’t happen,” he said. “We were right outside Chicago at the Navy Base (Great Lakes Naval Station), and we were never called in. Nothing happened and were never called in to do anything.”

Yolande Robbins was also in Chicago at the time of King’s death.

“I was teaching in a Chicago suburban school when we received the word,” she said. “There was a PA announcement of something tragic and serious, and then we were told in person by some of the administrators of the news.”

School officials, Robbins said, dismissed school and told everyone to go home immediately.

“I just remember people pouring out of that building and everyone was really in a state of shock and sorrow. It was an integrated school, both in staff and students.

“A teacher and I walked out the door together and into the parking lot, and she was in tears and I was in tears and we didn’t say anything.”

North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield was a fifth-grader at Bowman School.

“I remember it was total chaos and confusion. The principal at that time was Mr. Harris, and I remember when he was walking around, telling the staff what had happened.

“I was very young, and didn’t quite understand the whole thing at the time, but I remember my father, who was a pastor, was hurt when he heard.”

Mayor George Flaggs Jr. was around 15 and in high school when he heard about King’s death.

“It was a shock, the same way it was with President Kennedy. Ever since then, in my political career, I’ve acknowledged him and I have daily quote book that I read every day that was given to me by a constituent.”

Rev. R.L. Miller, who turned 92 Wednesday, met King after he got out of the Army, and said he renewed the acquaintance with King during King’s visit to Jackson and when he came to Vicksburg to speak at Pleasant Green.

“That was the last time I met him was there.”

When he learned King had been shot, Miller said, “I couldn’t believe it at first; when they called me, I couldn’t believe it; I almost fainted. We had been friends. I didn’t know what to say, and people here didn’t know what to say.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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