April 4, 2018

UCalgary professors reflect on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination

'His words and his example have continued to inspire people'
Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, I Have a Dream, speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C.

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Wikimedia Commons photo in the public domain


The assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968 was etched into the mind of David Este as a teenager living in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. “At the time, there was a strong fear in the twin cities of Halifax and Dartmouth that there would be riots or outbursts similar to what happened the day he was assassinated and after,” recalls Este, now a professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary. Both Nova Scotian communities have large African-Canadian (or African-Nova Scotian) populations that are multi-generational. (There were no major riots in Canada around the time of the assassination.)

“For me, as a young third-generation African-Canadian teenager, it was quite a loss, not only to African-Americans, but I believe a lot of African-Canadians looked up to Dr. King,” says Este, who holds a PhD in social work and a master’s degree in African-American and African-Canadian studies. “There was so much emphasis on the civil rights movement in the States, but in Canada we did have our own civil rights moment. I would say it most strongly manifested in Halifax, Toronto and Montreal.”

Este remembers a growing prominence of activism in Nova Scotia when he was in high school in the 1970s. He had a friend living in East Preston, Nova Scotia who attended a high school with a 40 per cent African-Nova Scotian student body. Este attended Dartmouth High, where he was one of four black students (as well as one black teacher) in a school of 1,500.

“It was pretty isolating,” he remembers. “My friend and I lived in two different worlds. But what I think turned things around for me was we had two Black Panthers who came to our school and debated two social studies teachers. It was the first time I heard two black PhDs debate teachers. It was exhilarating and exciting,” he says.

“This anniversary brought up a lot of memories for me. There is a lot of African-Canadian history that many Canadians don’t know a lot about. In 1968, a small number of Black Panthers arrived in Halifax because they wanted to understand the African Nova Scotian experience. They wanted to learn about Africville, in the north end of Halifax. Africville was a community founded by African Nova Scotians in the early 1800s; it was bulldozed in the mid-1960s. Today, there are still descendants of the original residents who are trying to get reparations.

“Canadians have had a tendency to compare their race relations in terms of African-Americans and they think the situation for African-Canadians cannot be as bad. But let me tell you in last couple years, there has been literature published that virtually destroys that mythology. Robyn Maynard’s 2017 book Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to Present is a very powerful book. Last fall, the Human Rights Council at the United Nations issued a pretty damning report addressing issues affecting African-Canadians with recommendations for the federal government to address. If anyone has any doubt about racism in Canada, these documents do an excellent job of telling the story, but they are very disturbing reads.”

If Martin Luther King Jr. was alive today …

“If he was alive today, although progress has been made in the middle class in the U.S. and Canada, I think he would be dismayed at what is transpiring in both the American and Canadian context. People of African descent, male and female are being killed by white police officers and very few officers are being charged with killing or murders. There are still ongoing challenges of educational opportunities for African-American and African-Canadian men, from an educational perspective. African-American women and African-Canadian women are doing better from an educational perspective, but Africans in both countries still make less money and don’t have the same access to well-paying jobs,” says Este.

“When it comes to gun violence and school shootings, I think Martin Luther King would be dismayed at the level of violence, especially in American society. When I think of how critical he became in his last year of life, if he were alive today I think he would be a supporter of Black Lives Matter. In some ways, Black Lives Matter is far more inclusive than the civil rights movement was because its leaders are women and queer women and transgendered people.”

What I want the younger generation to know about Martin Luther King Jr.

“First I’d want them to know that Martin Luther King taught that without education, the circumstances for people of African descent are more diminished. Education is paramount. Second, that you have to stand up for your rights and who you are. And third, that in life you have to work hard, hard, hard, and even more hard, because of the colour of your skin. Even today. I like to be optimistic — we can reach the mountain top, we shall overcome, yes we can — but we also need a dose of realism that the struggle for equality continues in both the United States and in Canada.”

*  *  * 

 David Este, professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary, discusses a project with students in 2014. "This anniversary brought up a lot of memories for me," Este says. "There is a lot of African-Canadian history that many Canadians don’t know a lot about."

David Este, professor in the Faculty of Social Work, speaks with students.

University of Calgary


As a teenager raised in segregated Galveston, Texas in the 1950s and 1960s, Elizabeth Jameson remembers trying to check out Martin Luther King’s book Stride Toward Freedom from the local library. “The librarian wanted me to call my mother to get permission to check out the book,” remembers Jameson. “I don’t know  my mother’s exact words, but she told the librarian something like ‘Don’t ever call me again and let my daughter check out whatever books she wants’.” As the daughter of parents who were civil rights advocates, Jameson says she was aware of her white privilege from an early age. “Martin Luther King was a huge inspiration for me,” she says.

“Class and race were clearly connected in the world I grew up in,” she says of the community that was a mix of African-Americans, Hispanics and whites. “Parents were typically doctors, or longshoremen or domestic workers.” Her experiences led her to become a history professor where “race was always part of how I analyzed history,” says the social historian and UCalgary professor emerita of history.

One of the defining moments of her life came in the summer of 1967, when she was a 20-year-old student at Antioch College in Ohio. Through a work-study program, she had the opportunity to work for three months as a research assistant on the Riot Commission, officially known as the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, which studied the more than 100 race riots that took place in the United States that summer. “I was one of three students assigned to three senior scholars. My team was trying to document how the riots were spreading to smaller cities. I remember we got statistics about phone records from Newark that showed that people in smaller New Jersey communities were simply getting phone calls from friends and family about the Newark Riot.”

In a lecture given at UCalgary in 2008 on the 40th anniversary of the Riot Commission’s report, Jameson, then UCalgary’s Imperial Oil-Lincoln McKay Chair in American Studies, reflected on her experiences working on the Commission Report, which was published on February 29, 1968, just a month before Dr. King’s assassination:

“The Kerner Commission Report surprised almost everyone and totally pleased very few.  It concluded famously, ‘Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal,’ and issued the first official acknowledgment that white racism engendered the conditions that bred black discontent. 

“From September-December, 1967 I worked as a research assistant on the Kerner Commission staff.  I treasure this hardbound copy of the report that each staff member received, our names embossed on the cover.  My status may be hinted by the fact that my name is misspelled.  I treasure it nonetheless.”

Jameson vividly remembers that President Johnson was not happy with the report. “But the following month, Dr. King was killed and the cities blew up again,” Jameson says. “For a number of us, I can’t describe what a mind-numbing horrible blow that was. Because we had embraced the tactic of non-violence and had hoped that with legal change and peaceful protest real change was going to happen. The visceral violent responses following Dr. King’s death showed how much pain and disillusionment — and what pessimism about the intentions of white America — was right there below the surface and that it was going to take a very long time of not just good intentions but good actions to dispel that.”

Elizabeth Jameson on Dr. King’s legacy then and now

“So when you ask me about the 50th anniversary and Dr. King’s legacy, it was that he inspired a generation to risk a great deal to make peaceful change and to confront some of the most difficult historically embedded inequalities in America,” Jameson says.

“His words and his example have continued to inspire people. I think he was always a realist and knew that the odds were that he was going to get killed. That had always been the case for articulate black men who challenged power, particularly economic power. Dr. King’s legacy remains pertinent. There are laws on the books that guarantee the right to vote. But many states, without explicitly making race the measure, have tried to limit the participation of African-Americans in the electoral system by limiting voting days, by requiring things like drivers licenses to register to vote when many poorer people don’t have cars. There remains a concerted effort to limit their effectiveness.

“The challenge of cultural change remains,” Jameson continues. “There has certainly been progress. There is a much larger educated black middle class that are leaders — one of whom became president. But we are seeing the backlash against that right now, I think. The Black Lives Matter movement is one response to the continued violence against black youth. The current inspiring activism of the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida is another part of that. Those kids are being remarkably articulate in not just their own demands but in understanding that people are paying attention to them because they are white and that some people are not paying as close attention to their classmates who are people of colour or to the Black Lives Matter movement. That is to say that racism is still an issue that divides American society and that violence is still disproportionately visited on people of colour. Dr. King still has a great deal to say in the current context to help us to continue to fight to improve the world.”

Elizabeth Jameson, professor emerita of history in the Faculty of Arts, was a 20-year-old student at Antioch College in Ohio when she worked for three months as a research assistant on the Riot Commission.

Elizabeth Jameson, professor emerita of history in the Faculty of Arts.

Dave Brown, University of Calgary Libraries and Cultural Resources

The importance of grassroots movements and social media

“The other extremely relevant thing to take from Dr. King’s legacy is to reflect on his own place in the movement. It would be easy to say, ‘Civil rights was the project of one great man.’ But the movement was always much bigger than the leadership and it grew as a grassroots movement often led by women before the moment that articulate leaders could capture the attention of the American media. It’s important to recognize, as Dr. King did, that change comes from the daily acts and courage of a lot of people whose names never make it into history. And that also creates the hope that that change can happen again — that we will change our behavior and that it will affect the world,” says Jameson.

“At the moment, it is social media, particularly Facebook — much in the same way that telephones operated in spreading the word of the Newark riots in 1967 — that has become the way that regular people communicate daily by posting video taken on an iPhone. It’s much harder to deny video. That physical evidence can be even more powerful than the personal testimony of someone who was there and witnessed violence. In 1967, most of the summer riots were started by some evidence of police brutality, usually against an African-American person, usually a man, but that was hearsay, because people weren’t walking around urban neighbourhoods carrying expensive cameras to document this. But for the generation that is currently in high school and college, there is this undeniable evidence and I don’t think that they are going to easily erase the memories of Marjory Stoneman Douglas or Sandy Hook or Trayvon Martin or any of the other brutality that we have seen recently.”

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial at night in Washington, D.C.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial at night in Washington, D.C.

Scott Ableman licensed under Creative Commons