Old News: 55 Years Since Dr. King’s Assassination

This April 4, Managing Features Editor Sonia Chajet Wides ’25 revisits issues of The Amherst Student from the weeks surrounding Dr. King’s murder to explore the campus’ varied responses: from urgency and mourning, to fear and hope.

Old News: 55 Years Since Dr. King’s Assassination
Amherst College and UMass students march through town following the announcement of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Photo courtesy of the Amherst College Archives.

“The murder of Martin Luther King has eliminated room for doubt, fluctuation and moderation. Action and result are all that is left.” — Tuffy Simpkins ’69, April 8, 1968

For this week’s edition of Old News, instead of letting a random number generator decide upon a year in the college’s history to look back on, I intentionally chose 1968.

This week in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. I wanted to commemorate the 55th anniversary of his murder and take a look at how Amherst College responded at the time. Because of his leadership, Dr. King’s assassination was a deeply important moment in American history and across movements for racial justice. It also came in the middle of an enormously eventful year, in which the Vietnam War raged on, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated and Richard Nixon won the presidency, catapulting the nation into conservative backlash to the previous decade’s social upheaval.

At Amherst, these events were experienced by a campus community that was still all-male, with a graduating class that was just 2 percent Black. Like many schools around this time, the campus was ripe with student activism and political discussion. In the weeks surrounding Dr. King’s murder, The Student documented impromptu gatherings and speeches on the quad, community organizing meetings, protests, and fasts.

I knew from research for an article about diversity in admissions last year that many students at Amherst felt that Dr. King’s assassination further motivated the college community to make more strident demands about racial justice at Amherst. In these papers, I saw on display the radicalization and galvanization that Dr. King’s assassination provided for so many students and faculty, and the beginnings of the major changes it would contribute to.

Amherst in April 1968

I began with the April 4, 1968, edition of The Student, which was published in the morning, before Dr. King was shot and killed that evening. So the issue did not include the assassination in its news, but it gave me some context as to what the political environment was like at Amherst at the time.

One story reported on a student rent strike in the town of Amherst. Another discussed the several proposals of Student Council member Jon Tobis ’69 to “publicize the repressiveness and brutality” of Massachusetts abortion laws, including the establishment “of an illegal Abortion Loan Fund … through which students could borrow up to $300 interest free for a year.”

Unsurprisingly, many stories related to the Vietnam War, the draft, and deferring it. Faculty had just voted to cancel classes on May 4 for a Day of Inquiry on American Involvement in Vietnam.

Discussions of racial justice also abounded: a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), John Wilson, “a leader in the Black Power and peace movements,” was to speak in Converse Hall.

One opinion piece on prejudice at Amherst read: “Prejudice is out of fashion at Amherst. And repressed or rechanneled with extreme sophistication. Oh, occasionally there will be a joke at the expense of one minority group or another, but they are never meant seriously, of course … But you let it pass by. Because it isn’t that important, somehow. Amherst is different. The National Commission on Civil Disorders may say that there is white racism in the United States. But not at Amherst.”

The April 4, 1968 Opinions page was full of political perspectives. Image courtesy of the Amherst College Archives.

The biggest discussion was about then-President Lyndon B. Johnson’s announcement that he would not run again in the 1968 election. A news article reported that students were widely celebratory in response to the announcement: “Firecrackers exploded well into the night, the Hallelujah Chorus blared from several dorms.” Students were generally unfavorable towards Johnson’s Vietnam War policy, and hoped that other Democratic candidates would be more staunchly anti-war.

But an editorial cautioned students not to celebrate too much: “We would do well to forget our cries of jubilation and our outpourings of praise … before we choke on them … The war goes on … We have to support a very new and radical system of values or there will be more fighting and dying in Vietnam and there will be more Vietnams. There will be more riots and more poverty.” Later that day, the murder of Dr. King would remind campus of this violent reality.

After the Assassination

The front page of The Amherst Student on April 8, 1968. Image courtesy of the Amherst College Archives.

The April 8 edition of The Student’s front page read, “Death of Martin Luther King Leaves Campus Sad and Angry.” The article’s author, Tim Hardy ’69, wrote, “A feeling of great loss and deep sorrow was inseparable from an equally strong feeling of anger towards American racism as Amherst mourned the death last Thursday of the assassinated Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.”

Dr. King was fatally shot at a motel in Memphis, where he had traveled to support striking Black sanitation workers. The night before, Dr. King had delivered his famously prophetic speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” in which he said, “I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

Just after Dr. King’s death was reported on the evening of the 4th, a spontaneous demonstration commenced on the town common, where, according to Hardy, “the anger at American society overshadowed the feeling of grief and sorrow over King’s death.” The demonstration that evening began with 600 students from UMass Amherst marching down Pleasant Street, where they convened with Amherst College students to form a crowd of 1,000 people, who sang songs such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “We Shall Overcome.”

Two Amherst students spoke at the demonstration, Tom Sellers ’71, and Eric Bohman ’70, who was president of Amherst’s chapter of the national Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). “Bohman told the marchers not to forget that a racist society, and not a single insane man, was responsible for King’s death,” Hardy wrote.

An informal panel the next morning in Johnson Chapel featured Bohman, Sellers, and other students and faculty, drawing a crowd of over 150 students. At the panel, Sellers was quoted as saying, “I see racism as the most pervasive, basic part of our society … King was the best friend the white man ever had. His goal is alive, but his tactic (non-violence) is dead.”

I talked to Sellers this week, and 55 years later, he recalled that King’s assassination dealt a blow to people’s faith in non-violence: “There was a feeling, like it was not just the death of Dr. King, but it was like the death of non-violence as a strategy and as a tactic for the civil rights movement.”

Upon reflection, the older Sellers no longer agrees with that assessment. “Being a lot more mature, and having watched the success of folks like John Lewis, obviously, the tactic wasn’t dead,” he said, "It continued to be a useful tactic for a lot of folks in the movement."

However, Sellers noted the urgency of the environment at Amherst and around the country. “It felt like we were on the brink of revolution, 1968 being a pretty crazy year,” he said. “At the moment, it felt like it was all over and done with.”

According to the April 8 edition of The Student, these first demonstrations were only the beginning. In the following days, 600 people attended a college memorial service conducted by college chaplain Lewis Mudge, and Cuthbert “Tuffy” Simpkins ’69, who was the president of the newly formed Afro-American Society.

Mudge, for his own part, had worked with Dr. King in the past and attended his funeral in Atlanta. He wrote about his experiences and the strangeness of re-entering Amherst afterwards in the April 15 issue of The Student. “There, up ahead, the … cart bearing the … coffin of the man you once sat beside in a car in St. Augustine,” he wrote. “The man who knew that sooner or later this moment would come … Re-entry problems. Recompression. The faculty at coffee talking of their gardens. Signs of incomprehension, even bitterness.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in San Francisco in June 1964. Image courtesy of Creative Commons.

Mudge had no illusions about the significance of the murder. “To think now of going back to the spirit of 1963-65 is no doubt sheer nostalgia,” he wrote. “How to join enthusiasm and determination with the hard thinking and patient effort that any real changes in our life will require?”

At Amherst, political organizing continued. A large group of students and faculty planned to fast from the following Tuesday to Thursday, “‘for peace in Vietnam, for freedom and justice in the United States, for an end to violence,’ and in memory of Martin Luther King, who had issued the call for the fast before his assassination last Thursday.” The fast included 30 students, and faculty such as Professor of History and American Studies, and Emeritus N. Gordon Levin, who still teaches at Amherst.

A group gathers on the Amherst town common for a Rally for Peace and Freedom on April 20, 1968. Photo courtesy of the Amherst College Archives.

Alongside chapters at Smith and Mount Holyoke, SDS also commenced planning for a “Ten Days” of protest with speakers, teach-ins, workshops, and films. “The focus of the activities during this organized period will be an educational confrontation with the imperialist policy in foreign affairs of the United States,” said Bohman. The group also organized symposiums on race and racism and the draft. One event, a Rally for Peace and Justice, featured Reverend James Bevel, a close collaborator of Dr. King’s, speaking on the Town Common.

“The stress of the activities reflects the SDS movement’s belief that any real political change in the United States, in Bohman’s terms, ‘must come from the bottom up,’” reported The Student, “‘lack of local political participation creates local impotence in American political structure.’”

The April 11 issue of The Student reported that there was a community organizing meeting that same week, attended by 220 people, that lasted two hours and “wandered from topic to topic,” but resulted in multiple action plans, including a money drive for the striking garbage workers whom Dr. King had gone to Memphis to support a voter registration drive, and a boycott of Amherst businesses that would not hire Black students.

People also turned inward to look at how the college should respond. The fasting group worked with SDS convened to discuss a six-point, racial justice action plan to propose to the college: Increase the number of Black students on campus, abolish rushing and fraternities, establish a committee “to re-examine priorities in the College budget,” create a Martin Luther King Memorial Fund to aid the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), curtail commencement funds to use for civil rights programs, and re-examine college investments in “corporations that practice or perpetuate racial equality.” SDS also devised a plan to conduct weekly seminars “instructing students in organizing anti-discrimination projects in white communities.”

In speaking about the response at Amherst, Sellers emphasized the smallness of the Black community — “ten of us in the entire class.” He believes that the intense mobilization in 1968 “led to a more vibrant and vital … group of African American students who ended up graduating from Amherst and have gone on to do some really incredible things.”

He also expressed that the events of 1968 galvanized many students, including himself, to look beyond Amherst to take action. “You felt like you had to do something,” he said. “And just hanging around Amherst and writing papers and debating nice intellectual things was not really doing something, you had to get out and do something.”

In his case, that meant participating in a summer program alongside Smith and Mt. Holyoke students, teaching Black students in Mississippi who would soon integrate all-white schools. “The loss of Dr. King and the emotion that night was the impetus, ultimately, for me, leaving Amherst and going to work in that program in the summer, and not coming back for a couple of years,” he said. “Amherst at that point didn’t seem like the real world, especially after Dr. King was killed … It was filled with a whole lot of smart people doing smart things. But it didn’t feel like it was the real world.”

Jesse Warr ’69, who wrote an opinion piece for the April 8 edition of The Student, shared similar thoughts with me this week. Going to Amherst, he said, “felt like interplanetary travel … you went into this sort of idyllic academic environment … our engagement with the … community around us was minimal.”

Some students who had done the Mississippi program during the previous summer wrote a piece in the April 8 edition where they connected their observations over the summer to the new reality that Dr. King’s assassination left in its wake, similarly describing it as a turning point.  “There will be riots in Mississippi this summer,” they predicted. “The brink between hope and a repress[ed] but deep-seated hatred will be crossed; white America has shown … [our students] that there is no cause for hope … Most of our students this summer clung to a strand of hope in the white man, but when violence engulfs their last hopes there is only one way they can, as human beings, respond.”

Richard Aronson ’69, program director for careers in health professions at Amherst, wrote to me in an email that he felt that King’s death “served as a significant catalyst and driving force for the following changes that were on the horizon and that happened at Amherst over the next few years.”

Among these were the growth of the Black Student Union (then called the Afro-American Society), the establishment of the Black studies major, and the creation of a space for Black students in the Octagon later that year. Additionally, the college convened many efforts to continue diversifying its student body and invest in educational equity, including the Black and White Action Committee (BWAC), a group of faculty, students, and alumni dedicated to addressing racial diversity at Amherst. In their report, BWAC referred to Dr. King’s assassination as a major wake-up call and a motivator of their work.

The April 15 issue of The Student announced that the college’s incoming class of 1972 was likely to have as many Black students as the three upper classes combined — this number was still a very low 27. The issue from April 18 reported that “a proposal calling for Amherst College to adopt broad new programs designed to respond to the current racial crisis in the United States will be presented to the Board of Trustees tomorrow night.” These programs included the previous six-point plan as well as the hiring of a Black dean.

In the same issue, an editorial titled “Revolutionizing” read, “The meetings and the proposals came one week after white America had buried its last Negro leader. We hope that the changes are not too late … Already the shock created by the slaying of Martin Luther King has begun to subside.” The Student’s Editorial Board noted that the “pitiful smallness” of the Black community of Amherst made “racism and apathy too easy.”

The Opinions page of the Amherst Student on April 8, 1968 was full of student perspectives on the assassination. Image courtesy of the Amherst College Archives.

For many students, King’s death simply reinforced beliefs they already held about the necessity of a more radical view of racial politics and the U.S.’ role in Vietnam, a topic King had been discussing extensively immediately prior to his death.

“If anything, I thought I was with that … SNCC cohort, that King could have been even more radical,” Warr told me in an interview this week. In reflecting and rereading Dr. King’s later speeches, though, Warr said, “I realized he was standing up … against [his] government, one of the biggest moves the government was making in the international arena.”

He is pleased to see current discussion surrounding the fact that “we may have missed the core radicalism of King … that the sting of what he said has been taken out. He's become, sort of, the Santa Claus of the civil rights movement, jovial and optimistic … He was more than that. I'm in support of whatever people are trying to re-energize his message.”

Warr’s views on Vietnam and racial politics “didn't change with the assassination. I was already there. And the assassination just made me really sad. And it also made me somewhat frightened. What's going to come next?”

A number of other reactions were published in The Student, some of which you will find reprinted on the opposite page. They include the eulogy given by Simpkins at the memorial service, titled “You Killed Our Only Prince of Peace,” as well as other perspectives from some of the Black and white students, and articles from faculty members. Many people expressed their belief that Dr. King’s death would prompt a loss of faith in the efficacy of nonviolence.

For example, one anonymous white student reflected on how his mind had changed on the topic of violence. “I say ‘don’t be so goddamn militant.’ Well I just can’t say it anymore,” he wrote. “It isn’t right and it never was … You can’t say ‘don’t be violent,’ when you can’t possibly know the seething … embitterment that every black man must feel …You know after all that non-violence is not going to solve a thing … So if it takes a riot, and my house must go, then that’s how it’s going to be.”

In response, another student, Bob Ihne ’69, urged his peers against violence in a letter to the “self-styled white revolutionaries and black militants” who announced the end of nonviolence in The Student’s pages. Violence, he wrote, “is so efficient and so sick.” “Don’t riot in memory of Martin Luther King,” he proclaimed, “because you’re turning his dream into a nightmare … [With a violent movement] all America will get what it deserves — perpetuation of our sick way of life, a deeper imprinting of violence as a means of getting what we want.”

The articles and quotations opposite show in real time the varied responses to Dr. King’s assassination.

Now, 55 years later, Warr told me, “I'm mourning King again, in a way that I haven't in a while. He's become so much a part of … street signs … And then [re-listening to] the speech made it real … this is a man trying to move our country forward. And one bullet silenced him.”

Reprints from April 1968 editions of The Amherst Student:

“You Killed Our Only Prince of Peace,” Tuffy Simpkins ’69, April 8, 1968

This speech was given by Simpkins, who was the president of the newly formed Afro-American student society (now the Black Student Union), at the Amherst College memorial for Dr. King.

I have no eulogies today. Eulogies have been manufactured before on similar occasions. People have sat on church pews and mourned before. Try saying to yourself or to others that Martin Luther King was a good man, a sincere man, a crusader for justice; and your heart tells your mouth to shut up, be quiet, stop all the needless profusion of words that serves as nothing more than a veneer to cover up the real question, the real problem: what’s wrong with you, and you, and you? What kind of nation is this to kill a man of peace? There is nothing left to do but to withdraw and face inward, and realize that this nation and its people, yes, its white people, have lived a most filthy lie.

Martin Luther King opposed the lie. He embodied all that this nation could be. The man who murdered him represented the barbarism and vile hatred of America. Two forces bigger than either man were at play Thursday night. The terrible drama began with America’s birth and came to an end on April 4 with the impact of a cold steel bullet upon the body of a most dear and beloved man.

The ambiguity of violence, non-violence, moderation, and radicalism has been stripped away. There is no in-between, no indecision. Are you for the seemingly simple and straight-forward ideas of freedom, justice, and equality? Or are you against it and favor apartheid which makes no pretentions? There is no middle road, no wavering. The only positive response is a maximum uncompromising effort to accomplish these ideals.  … Action and result are all that is left. Black People have always taken action. We gave our lives for a free America in the wars, and America with its vast resources of steel bullets took many of us away. The mass of whites has been either indifferent or opposed to the idea that all men are equal. There is no room for discussion. Only action and immediate results are what the Afro-American will listen to, and you too, if you really believed Martin Luther King; if you really look within.

Let us support his March of Poor People. Let us make the necessary sacrifice, and be willing to change our values. There is no place to turn but within. Take a good look and see that you killed our only prince of peace.

Jesse Warr ’69, April 8, 1968

Warr, who described himself to me this week as “not the most militant student on campus, but … active,” and one of the founders of the Black Student Union. He recalled that some of his classmates were surprised at the urgent tone of his piece in The Student. He also mentioned to me that his experience with the assassination was shaped by the fact that he had seen Dr. King speak in Washington, D.C. the previous week.

Someone murdered a ‘Negro leader’ in Memphis last Thursday evening. I think I know who did it: He’s the guy who glanced at the Black Power Seminar poster last week and passed on, or heard the announcement over the P.A. system in Valentine, and took his plate back for seconds. When asked about buying a ticket to the Black Arts Festival, he replied ‘I’d go, but … I already have … an hour exam on Tuesday … a lab due.’ He’s the tall science major who was up half of Thursday night, trying to decide if ‘the Negroes’ would riot, and if they did, would they be right, and then paced off, confused, to bed.

… The man who snuffed out the life of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Time magazine ‘Man of the Year,’ husband, citizen, father, ‘rabblerouser,’ attended the memorial service in Johnson Chapel Friday afternoon, thinking in that way to atone for the silence when the rifle sounded.

You may recall that the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the man with the Dream back in ’63. We stood there around the Reflecting Pool and listened, while he told of a day when the sons of slaves and the sons of slave-holders would stand together as brothers and sing God’s praises. He preached of goodness and of joy, of how fast might that day come if only we looked at every other man … as just another man, like ourselves, no better, and certainly no worse … And Mahalia sang about how we’d been buked, how we’d been scorned. And we all went back home.

… Up from that same Memphis came Dr. King to our National Cathedral in Washington last Sunday. Referring to history and ethics, as he was always prone to do, Dr. King spoke about America’s obligation to feed the hungry of India, to stop the ‘unjust war’ in Vietnam, to make technology our means, not our end. If the ‘inexpressible cruelty’ of slavery couldn’t stop us, nothing was going to turn us round now, he promised. That this country might be civilized — he called that our ‘destiny’ — the People’s Army would march, come hell or high water.

Martin Luther King died, caught up in a garbage collector’s strike — a garbage strike! Langston Hughes, Medgar Evers, W.E.B. Dubois, and the prince, Malcolm X — so many have died in the past three or four years, still carrying the standard of Human Freedom.

So the great Dreamers are dead. And the dream? ...

“From a Diary: We Cannot Know … And We can Say Nothing,” Anonymous, April 8, 1968

This diary is anonymous, but appears to be written by a white student pondering what to say to his Black roommate after the killing.

A strange time to be writing in a diary; it’s two a.m. and Martin Luther King was shot tonight and killed. And C.P. said to me in the snack bar tonight, ‘The summer is gone, man, the summer is gone.’ The cities are going to burn. They’ve started already. And I sit here with my roommate, and what do I say? Black man in the white world, and yet he knows that a little of him died tonight with King. And what do I say to this man? …

Do I say, ‘no, you must not hate’? Well hell no. I just can’t say it … I doubt that any white man can ever feel it. Can I know what black skin means? Can I feel the hate that grew in Buchenwald or Auschwitz? I can’t know that. And it’s too bad that I can’t, because I would know what it feels like to want to burn … but I’m white and I just can’t know.

And I say ‘don’t be so goddamn militant.’ Well I just can’t say it anymore. And I used to say it with conviction; it was the correct white middle-classism. But it isn’t right and it never was, because none of us can say it and mean it. You can’t say ‘don’t be violent,’ when you can’t possibly know the seething, fiery, angry, embitterment that every black man must feel. You vaguely sense those feelings now. You know after all that non-violence is not going to solve a thing …

So if it takes a riot, and my house must go, then that’s how it’s going to be. I’ll be angry, but my anger will be tempered …

There is nothing to say, and we sit here at our own private little wake, very speechless, very tired, very frustrated. And the students marching around singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ will solve nothing; they will not be able to solve their own consciences, if that is what they are trying to do. Because the guilt will come back, and it will haunt … We are all guilty in the greatest crime against man which is written in recent history. And what can any of us say? Nothing … simply nothing.”

“New Commitment,” Editorial Board, April 11, 1968

… Our only fear must be that the emotions not subside into complacency, and turn instead into commitment and action. Commitments not to help Black America, but to cure White America.

The question of what we can do is not easy to answer. We can demand that more Negroes be admitted to Amherst and that we institute a five year A.B. We can demand that Louis’ Foods and D. O’Connell’s Sons hire Negroes. We can go back into our white suburbs to protest against realtors who discriminate on the basis of color. We can organize the poor whites of our hometowns into seeing that the same forces which keep Negroes down — poor education, and horrendous working and living conditions, keep them down as well.

But we must be prepared to be frustrated, to fail, for the sickness of racism runs too deeply in America to be cured at once, or to be cured by small, “token” gains … Only from the failures can we, the newly committed, realize the depth to which change must go. Only by realizing, through the experience of pain, the pain of sacrificing our friends, our suburban community’s approval, our jobs, our money, and our liberal self-righteousness, can we see how necessary a vast revolution of social consciousness is. A year and a half ago Stokely Carmichael told us that we must go into the white communities if we wanted to be a part of the Movement. We did not go, and only now, in a time of horror and disgust, do we recognize that that is all that we cando, and that we must do it now before it is too late.

“Amherst and Black America,” Professor Leo Marx, April 18, 1968

Transcript of a talk given in Johnson Chapel by English professor Leo Marx.

A week ago last night, in the aftermath of the murder of Martin Luther King, some three hundred members of the Amherst community gathered in Mead Auditorium. We came together because we had been shocked, because we felt a need to do something specific … A few days later, one felt the mood of urgency quietly ebb from the community. The sun came out, and with it the Bermuda shorts, the sports cars — life was back to normal.

What happened in Amherst was only a local version of a national experience. Think of the grief, the resolves to act, the mood of now or never! … No action was taken, but meanwhile the new rhetoric of national melodrama lingers in our minds: ‘sick society,” ‘racist America,’ phrases that unaccompanied by action invite despair and inaction …

There it is — the rhythm of our lives. First, the jarring event, quickly followed by an interval of lucidity and determination and then … and then? And then — what?

… Our fundamental point of agreement, then, is simply this: if we are to make a significant contribution in this national crisis, the place to do it is right here in Amherst College. … These white institutions (and with all due respect to our black colleagues, I think we all will agree that Amherst is a white institution) can and should be transformed more quickly than society at large …

… But in saying all this, I hear a troubled voice asking, ‘Are you proposing to change the character of Amherst College? Won’t it be a different place?’ And our answer, of course, is yes! We are proposing that Amherst become a somewhat different place … We feel that our admissions policy must change, but so must the character of the curriculum, and of student life, and of the faculty — in some degree all of these must change if we are to create a hospitable and meaningful environment for currently excluded students.