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First Coast

50 Years Ago, Tense Days, Pleas For Peace In N.E. Fla. After Martin Luther King Jr.’s Assassination

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Associated Press
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In this April 22, 1965 file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., center, receives applause after finishing a speech to the joint session of the Massachusetts Legislature in Boston, the day before he led a civil rights march to Boston Common.

Those were nervous days in Northeast Florida and much of the nation, as riots broke out in city after city in reaction to King’s killing.

Three days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, some 2,500 people gathered at the Civic Auditorium in Jacksonville, according to our Florida Times-Union news partner. 

Jacksonville had so far not seen the violence that boiled over elsewhere. They gathered for a memorial service for the civil-rights leader, who was just 39 when the bullet hit him as he stood on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tenn.

Speakers, including Mayor Hans Tanzler, eulogized King, whose mission had taken him on repeated trips to Northeast Florida. In 1964 he journeyed to St. Augustine to join the widespread, highly publicized protests against racial discrimination there. And he’d spent time in Jacksonville at strategy sessions at activist Earl Johnson’s house — and in jail after his St. Augustine arrest.

But at the memorial service, one speaker recalled an earlier King visit to Jacksonville, in 1961, when he delivered a strong message of nonviolent resistance to a big crowd at Mount Ararat Baptist Church.

“He reminded us that the basic right is to be free, but that freedom is not free and is worth losing a job or going to jail or even dying for,” said Jacksonville activist Frank Hampton.

“He told us to oppose physical force with soul power: soul power, not white power or black power.”

Hampton, one of the city’s first black police officers and later a city councilman, noted a tragic, cruel irony in King’s death: “He preached nonviolence, yet died a violent death.”

Those were nervous days in Northeast Florida and much of the nation, as riots broke out in city after city in reaction to King’s assassination.

When the news came over the radio, James Jackson, who was 23, was driving around Anastasia Island with a friend, a cabbie. A few years earlier, Jackson, who is black, had been a teenage demonstrator for civil rights in St. Augustine, where he worked with King on that cause.

He was also one of three black men beaten by the local Ku Klux Klan after being spotted spying on a Klan rally in 1963. So he told his friend he didn’t want to stay a second longer on the largely white island — they needed to get home, quickly.

“I told him, man, get me off of this island because all hell is going to break loose now. I was really upset about his assassination, and I was really apprehensive that this whole country was going to go into just turmoil,” Jackson said recently. “I was more afraid, that particular day, than I was when I was abducted by the Ku Klux Klan ... I said, ‘The racists are really going to show their hand after this.’ ”

St. Augustine, though, stayed calm, he recalled. Perhaps the city had seen too much violence during the earlier demonstrations, which made news around the country and were credited in part for persuading President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

King was smart enough, Jackson said, to know that what was happening in St. Augustine, where there was an often violent backlash to the civil-rights demonstrators, could be a crucial turning point in the struggle for equal rights.

“King realized that utilizing St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest city, was a benefit to him,” Jackson said. “I truly believe that St. Augustine was very instrumental in King being the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.”

You can read a longer version of this story that includes the storm that arrived after the calm in Jacksonville on jacksonville.com.

The Florida Times-Union's Steve Patterson contributed to this story.