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Unity Month showcases MLK’s impact through discussion, march

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Unity Month at Marshall University kicked off Wednesday afternoon with a collection of speeches commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his assassination and a march through Huntington from campus.

Speakers reflected on where they were and what they were doing when King was shot on April 4, 1968.

Burnis Morris, associate professor of journalism and mass communications, said people across the nation and all over the world speak of King on personal terms and share special relationships with him, despite never meeting him face-to-face.

“We could think of no better way to commemorate his life than to let people we know and respect share their innermost thoughts about Dr. King with us today,” Morris said.

Marshall President Jerry Gilbert grew up in Mississippi and said he remembers the assassination from the perspective of a white thirteen-year-old boy.

“We were young people of Mississippi, we were living in a state of injustice, racism, and separation; blacks were not equal to whites,” Gilbert said. “There were laws to keep us from interacting with black people, less we might discover the myths about them were untrue. So, it was in this environment that I heard the news of King’s death.”

Gilbert said his immediate reaction was shock and disbelief that another assassination had occurred in the United States, as President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was still fresh in the minds of most citizens.

“Then my reaction was fear: ‘this is going to ignite a race war that will tear this country apart,’” Gilbert said. “Then there was shame, shame that the people in our country could allow differences to escalate to the murder of a man just because he was black and he spoke out for justice. We knew deep down that all the misinformation we heard about blacks being unequal was untrue, we knew that, but we were too afraid to speak up. As I grew older I found my voice and was able to speak out and use my voice for the civil rights movement. We owe a huge debt to Dr. King, how he helped make America a better place. He truly worked to make America great.”

Maurice Cooley, associate vice president for Intercultural Affairs and graduate of Marshall University, said he grew up in a primarily black community and was a sophomore in college at the time of King’s assassination.

“Marshall had about 35 black students at the time, most of those were black athletes,” Cooley said. “That was such a unique time to go to college, because it was in the heightened stage of the civil rights movement. The Vietnam War was going on. The freedom movement was going on. There were hippies, they were smoking pot, the Black Panther party was going on, all of this was going on every day in America on national TV.”

Cooley said living in Huntington during this period of segregation was tough, since it was not yet socially acceptable to integrate with white people.

“We worked hard; we were so excited as black people to be in a college in 1966,” Cooley said. “That was the emergence of black people going to predominantly white colleges in the early- to mid-‘60s, that’s when we started to come,” Cooley said. “During this time, we were elevated by what Dr. Martin Luther King down in Atlanta was doing for us. We didn’t know, was King the right guy? Was the Black Panther party, they were militant, is that the right way to do that? It appeared to us that the movement was greater because he had a peaceful way of going about it.”

Cooley said he is thankful for King’s influence, which caused him to work hard and focus on his responsibilities.

Sandra Clements, former city council member, said she grew up in a black neighborhood in Huntington, where the doors were never locked and residents never felt endangered.

Clements was nearing the end of her second semester at Marshall when King’s assassination occurred.

“I wasn’t surprised, but I was scared,” Clements said. “What happens when you kill someone who looks like me who’s leading a movement? What do you do? As I watched the news in nights to come, I watched as people began to burn things, to riot, and I thought, ‘what happens to me and my neighborhood?’”

Clements said despite her fear of the future, she used King’s message as a way of life.

“What King stood for was alleviating injustice,” Clements said. “No matter how big or how small, that has to be what we take from his life. Everybody that I come in contact with, I want to make life better for them. That is my job, that is what Dr. Martin Luther King said that I needed to do, and that’s what I will do.”

The commemoration speeches were followed by a Unity March from the Memorial Student Center to the A.D. Lewis Center led by Kelli Johnson, co-director of the president’s Commission on Diversity, Equality and Inclusion.

Hanna Pennington can be contacted at [email protected]

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