What's changed?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes his last public appearance at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968. The following day King was assassinated on his motel balcony.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes his last public appearance at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968. The following day King was assassinated on his motel balcony.

When people across the country responded to the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, with violent protests, many in Rock Hill dealt with King's death as he would have -- peacefully.

Residents of Rock Hill were urged to "confront the problem of racism honestly," a plea that came from a meeting of the executive committee of the Rock Hill Christian Ministers Association, the Rock Hill chapter of the NAACP and the Rock Hill branch of the S.C. Council on Human Relations.

"The death of this twentieth-century Moses saddens us as a people," a statement from the three groups read. "His death is a demand for us all to examine ourselves and to move out actively and positively. We call on our community to respond in keeping with the total impact of Dr. King's life and work. Let our response be confessional for his death and thankful for his life."

Members of the community today have different opinions of how well Rock Hill has met that challenge in the 40 years since King's death.

"We're still working on it," said Brother David Boone, a member of the Catholic Oratory who has fought for civil rights for decades. "I think the white community as a whole has not really grasped the full impact of how much the black community deals with it each and every day. There's a saying, 'Until you walk in my shoes you won't know.' I think that's very appropriate. They just haven't taken the time to walk in their shoes and get the feeling of how it feels."

Immediately after King's death, there were small fires, which police said were fueled by racial emotions, but the streets of Rock Hill were not full of angry people retaliating against the death of the person who represented hope for so many.

A memorial service at New Mount Olivet AME Zion Church that weekend drew crowds of people from black and white neighborhoods.

Horace Goggins, a lifetime member of the NAACP who heard King speak in person, said society overcame the obvious cases of racism.

"Racism now is not as open as what it used to be," he said. "It's more of a selective thing now. Most of our churches still haven't integrated. A lot of your private organizations still haven't integrated too much either. I don't think they have too many black members at the country club yet, either.

"It's a continuous battle," he added.

Caldwell Barron, who was on the City Council in 1968, said he thinks Rock Hill fared well when race relations were rocky throughout the country.

"I think we have a good relationship in Rock Hill," he said. "I was raised when they did have segregation, but that ended in the 1960s. We always had good relationships. A lot of good blacks have lived in Rock Hill and helped build it."

The City Council issued a proclamation after King's death offering condolences to those who were grieving and urging the community to follow King's example of seeking peaceful solutions to problems.

"He always preached peace and practiced peace," Barron said. "He wasn't an alarmist. He was a credit to his race and to everybody."

Jean Sherer, who was a teacher at Emmett Scott High School, the city's former black high school, credited the city's No Room for Racism Committee with helping many Rock Hillians come around.

The committee started about 11 years ago to foster relationships among people of diverse social, cultural and racial backgrounds.

To keep fighting racism, "I think really we need to get our hearts right," Sherer said.

Sherer's best friend, another retired teacher named Daisy McDuffie, said people need to find their place with God, then get educated, if racism is ever going to end. Education is the future, she said.

"You can't say, 'Free at last, free at last,' because they're not free at last," McDuffie said. "Freedom hasn't been ringing since he died."

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