Martin Luther King Jr. was scheduled to be in North Carolina the day he was assassinated in Memphis

ByTimothy Pulliam WTVD logo
Monday, January 21, 2019
MLK anniversary
MLK was scheduled to be in North Carolina the day he was assassinated in Memphis.

DURHAM, NC (WTVD) -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was previously scheduled to be in Durham on April 4, 1968, but a violent resistance to the sanitation strike in Memphis, Tennessee, forced Dr. King to extend his Memphis trip and cancel his trip to Durham.

Following the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, there was a big push in eastern North Carolina to infuse the 1968 election with Black candidates.

Former NCCU law student, 33-year-old Eva Clayton, was one of them, running for North Carolina's then-congressional second district.

Clayton and others invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Durham and Wilson to mobilize the Black vote.

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"He really wasn't coming by to say 'I Dr. King say you ought to vote for Eva Clayton.' But he committed himself to come and help increase voter registration," she said. "And we were excited about that."

But, Dr. King was leading a campaign to improve labor conditions for sanitation workers in Memphis.

A violent resistance erupted forcing him to extend his visit and cancel his trip to North Carolina.

Clayton understood the reason but was disappointed.

Watch an extended interview with Clayton in the media player above.

"We had a big thing going right," she said. "And then all of a sudden, we couldn't believe it. But after that we realized he made that decision wholeheartedly."

On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.

On that evening, the nation mourned.

RELATED: Never-before-heard first version of MLK's 'I Have A Dream' speech in North Carolina released

King first delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at a high school gymnasium in Rocky Mount, N.C. The recording of that speech was recently released.

Violence erupted through cities and towns across the country and here in North Carolina. Cities throughout the state activated curfews, and there was a statewide ban on the sale of alcohol.

But there were also peaceful marches; some of which were carried out by students from several colleges around the Triangle.

At Duke University, students held silent vigils by Duke Chapel in protest of King's assassination and the treatment of the university's nonacademic, minimum wage employees.

Wib Gully, a sophomore at Duke, participated in the silent vigil.

"It was exciting. It was scary. Because this had never happened before," said Gulley. "A lot of my friends felt some jeopardy in being able to stay in school. What would the university do? We're missing classes. Would we be kicked out?"

After initially occupying the home of Duke's then-President Douglas Knight, the students began a day-long, around-the-clock protest in front of Duke Chapel.

The vigil demanded Knight resign from segregated Hope Valley Country Club, and support of a strike by housekeeping, and recognize their union with dining hall staff, and a request of higher wages.

"The vigil for me and I think for many of us was a life-changing event," said Gulley, who after finishing at Duke, entered a career in public service, as Durham Mayor in the 1980's and then later state senator.

"It changed my sense of what I was going to do with my life. And what I was going to work for and the values I was going to try to live up to. And it's been that for the last 50 years. Whether I was in public life or private life or part of this community," said Gulley.

Fifty years later, the silent vigil continues each year to mark the anniversary of King's assassination.

Bob Ashley wrote about the first silent vigil in 1968 as a student for the campus paper, The Chronicle.

"Pretty much changed my entire worldview on my sense of justice and purpose in life and convinced me that journalists covering events like that was just as important as being a part of them," said Ashley, who recently retired as managing editor of the Durham Herald.

"I think it was for lots of us, who were relatively privileged folks as Duke students, reminded us of the really unjust way Duke's nonacademic employees were treated," said Ashley. "I think because of that, it made union rights and labor justice an important focus of the vigil that might not have been if Dr. King's assassination been what triggered it."

Both Ashley and Gulley said the silent vigil led to improving Duke's approach to its employees, including improving wages and recognizing their union.

"I think one of the things Dr. King demonstrated was a person of great conviction and moral integrity to drive change in this country against remarkable odds," said Ashley. "I think it's important for young people today to realize that students inspired by that, and rallied to that-they themselves can effect change. We don't have to accept injustice. We don't have to accept inequality. We can struggle against it."

King's assassination marks the 50 years of Duke's silent vigil. There's a list of events scheduled for April 12 through 15 that the community can get involved in.