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Leon Bibb: Reflecting on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years after his assassination

Posted at 8:40 PM, Apr 04, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-04 20:40:13-04

The gunshot still echoes in my memory - not that I heard it resound. But certainly, I feel its emotional impact.

It was a single shot which rocked the world as Martin Luther King Junior was murdered, a man of peace whose quest for peace, justice and equality was stopped by an assassin's bullet fifty years ago.

Echoes of that rifle fire still reverberate today. Millions of others will tell you that as they survey their own lives. But something important grew out of that tragic and deplorable event, out of that murder of the iconic figure of the world. Strangely, something positive grew from the horror of that day - April 4, 1968 - when gunfire silenced the voice of one who dreamed. 

Photographs from the Lorraine Motel in Memphis are frozen images of that day. The images stick with us in their stark black and white shades of gray, the people on the balcony pointing to where the fatal shot came from, King's body on the balcony floor.

A man who would later become a well-known Cleveland clergyman was there that day. He was not in the photographs, not part of the King entourage. In 1968, the now Clevelander was a Memphis taxicab driver dispatched to the Lorraine Motel to take Dr. King and his group to dinner. Bishop J. Delano Ellis, senior pastor of the Pentecostal Church of Cleveland and presiding prelate of the United Pentecostal Churches of Christ, was that Memphis taxicab driver 50 years ago. When the fatal shot pierced the peace, Ellis was within sight waiting to take Martin Luther King to dinner.

"And when I turned to look back, Dr. King was on the floor of the balcony outside his room, and his foot came through the rail," Ellis said. "I felt fear. I felt terror. I felt anger. And everybody was running up the steps. Blood was on the side of the door."

In that interview, Ellis told me he did not see the gunman who was later convicted of the assassination. James Earl Ray was on the run. Ten years later in a Tennessee prison, I would interview James Earl Ray one-on-one. But in 1968, Ray was on the run and riots by angry people over Dr. King's assassination peppered American cities, including Cleveland.

The assassination of King and the following riots pushed political wheels in Congress. No longer stalled, the Fair Housing Bill in Congress moved at frantic pace to a congressional vote. Within days of the King assassination, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 - protecting the rights of people, regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin or sex, attempting to rent or buy properties - became law. King was dead, but the movement continued.

Next week, on Wednesday, April 11 at the City Club of Cleveland, there will be a National Civic Rights Summit where these events of April 1968 will be discussed with emphasis placed on Martin Luther King and the Fair Housing Act, which grew from tragedy that day in Memphis. This is Leon Bibb reminding you it was a day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968.