Southern History

I still have the brick, one of them anyway, that landed on my Plymouth Valiant in Tallahassee (now THERE was a bizarre looking car) when I drove well after dark too close to scores of enraged Florida A&M students the night Martin Luther King was slain.

As a new reporter on The Democrat, the local daily paper, I had night blindness even then, and was following a photographer’s directions.

Close to panic, Dan thought I was suicidal (nope, just very near-sighted); a quick U-turn, a floor-board on the gas pedal , and we were out of there, our pale bodies unscathed, and headed back to the Democrat.

In moments, we were called again, to cover a family grocery on fire. The parents, who lived downstairs, escaped unharmed; their 19-year-old son was trapped in his small second story bedroom and perished.

I had no sooner written what I had from the scene for another reporter when I was dispatched after daylight some 30 miles west of Tallahassee to a beekeepers house in the Apalachicola National Forest. A  private Cessna had crashed a few hundred yards killing the pilot. The passengers, thrown clear, lay injured until dawn, calling for help.. The beekeeper told me he’d been awakened around 1:30 a.m. by the crash but “with all the meanness going on in town, I stayed inside until daylight.”

Three major stories, one of them the stuff of history,  in mere hours: not bad training for a young, slightly damp behind the ears reporter. My city editor, well into his 40s, had chosen April 4, 1968, as his day to quit smoking. He went home around 3:30 p.m. (the Democrat then being an afternoon paper) pleased that he had finished a work day without nicotine. He came back in that night  when King was killed, and was smoking again by midnight.

I had left by 3:30 that afternoon as well, and headed to my after-hours hangout, for a couple beers or three and their very good sandwiches. But I went back to the Democrat by early evening, to handle a weekly chore. Re-writing handouts for the Democrat Saturday church page.(!) New pastors, Sunday sermon topics, a new organist, etc. Squelch your laughter — at the Democrat the task was always given the newest, and usually youngest, reporter.
I was the only one in the newsroom, and  about to leave when a printer walked in from the “back shop” and told me his wife had just called from home — Martin Luther King had been shot. I called the city editor.

Dan, the photographer, dropped by the newsroom with word he’d heard on police radio that some buses had been set on fire at a lot on the edge of the FAMU campus. For some reason his car wasn’t usable so we used mine, and were trying to find the scene when we ran into the students with the bricks.

An hour so so later, we drove to the police line set up on a main street bordering FAMU, where police had taken cover behind their patrol cars. The campus is located on a small hill, and, from my  memory, angry students (and plenty of non students) hurled stones, bricks and bottles at passing traffic on the street. According to the Democrat story, the first person injured was a young motorist whose car sported a Rebel flag plate on the front.

I joined the police lines on the street, crouching behind a patrol car, as we listened to the makeshift missiles — and   occasional bullets — hit vehicles and buildings. Police said later they even recovered four or five light target arrows aimed their way.  The cops wisely chose not to enter campus, but to stop traffic, take cover and wait it out. No one was injured.

My most enduring memory of that night was  listening to the wail  of sirens, the crack of gunshots from up the hill, the ping of occasional light caliber bullets. The sounds of violence, competing with the voice of Dr. King himself.
Directly across the street, from a radio left playing in a tiny, down-and-out beer joint called “The Dog House,” its  doors open but now vacant of people, came the resonant, matchless voice  of  Martin Luther King Jr. with its familiar messages of hope: “I have a dream today!”…”How Long? Not long!” …”Let Freedom Ring!”

Louder than the sirens. More enduring than the gunfire.

Rest in Peace, Dr. King.

Bill Montgomery

Bill Montgomery

Bill Montgomery, aka "Monty," packed it in a few years back after 38 years as a reporter with the AJC, covering mostly crime and other forms of public insanity, such as political campaigns, strip club crackdowns, and the Georgia legislature. His career includes coverage of zanies that run the gamut from Lester Maddox and J.B. Stoner to Larry Flynt, and crime reporting that followed the 1973 Alday family killings in South Georgia to the execution of ringleader Carl Isaacs 30 years later, and the 20-year saga of Palm Beach millionaire James V. Sullivan, who hired the murder of his estranged wife at her Buckhead condo by a gunman packing a pistol in a box of roses. Montgomery lives in a Decatur condo with his wife Linda and their Boston terrier.

  1. I was a senior in college; MLK was killed the day after my 21st birthday. Campus was deserted for Spring Break, so the violence that played a part of the assassination didn’t happen in my sleepy little Ohio river town. I know it was different elsewhere, but there was no escaping the pall that fell over the country. Fog would be a good analogy.

  2. Will Cantrell

    Nice article Bill. I was finishing up my freshman year at Georgia Tech at the time that Martin was killed. There were perhaps 20 or 30 black students in the whole school in 1968. Tech had been officially integrated a couple of years before, but our numbers were few. Darn few. It seemed like you could go a long time –days– without seeing another black face.

    On April 5th, the morning after, you could hear a pin drop on the normally bustling campus over on North Avenue. Despite the sparse number of blacks at Tech, I think that administrators, professors, and others were afraid ‘of trouble’. Except for a few clerical people, whom I overheard say that they were”…glad that it didn’t happen here”, the whites on campus said little about MLK, the assassination, civil rights …or anything. At least they didn’t say it where any black person could hear it. The whites on campus –99.9% of the school’s population — gave blacks a wide berth for a week or two. Methinks that they were afraid of saying anything …lest they say the wrong thing. To be sure, I was smoldering — angry — about Martin’s death — but largely kept it to myself. The few other blacks on campus largely did the same thing, except for the fact that we all attended the funeral over at Morehouse, which is where many of our friends went to school. There never was any ‘trouble’ at Tech like there was at some other schools and like there was in Washington, D.C. and other larger cities.

    Of course, the ‘Killing of MLK’ was the second of several ‘bombshell’ developments of 1968. LBJ abstaining from running for a second term (announced about a week before ‘Memphis’, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the chaotic Democratic National Convention, and the close election between Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. Additionally, there was also the ongoing student unrest about the war in Vietnam. As I look back on it, I suspect that if the republic could make it through 1968 still intact, it could make it through almost anything. It was a tumultuous time.

    As a brief aside, I have to admit though, that the most courageous thing that you did was to actually be seen driving a Plymouth Valiant. Now that’s REAL courage, Bill. Real courage. As badly as I needed another car in those days I wouldn’t have driven a Valiant “if you’d given me one.” That was just one ‘ugly-ass’ car. You should note that I was driving an ugly pea-green, 1961 Ford Galaxy (just like Andy and Barney’s in Mayberry but without the police light on top). At the time the damn thing had 210,000 HARD miles on it, and the paint job on it was just awful. When it was given to me as a high school graduation present, the darn thing had 185,000 miles on it. The old green and white Ford smoked, sputtered and was battered and bruised. Getting ANYWHERE was a real adventure. Often I didn’t…which is why it took me five years to get out of Georgia Tech. That’s what I tell folks anyway.

    I still wouldn’t have driven a Valiant ‘on a bet’. By the way, those bricks were thrown, not out of any racial rage. They were being thrown at that Valiant! Don’t you know anything? (LOL)

    Good article, Bill. Good article.

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