After Memphis: Silent EC marchers paid tribute to King

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The front page of The Washington Post of April 5, 1968 reports the news of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination the day before in Memphis, Tenn. King's violent death sparked violent rioting and protests across the U.S. Those demonstrating against King's murder in Elizabeth City, however, organized a peaceful march to the Pasquotank County Courthouse where 2,000 people attended a service on the courthouse lawn. Marchers heard a number of speeches that paid tribute to King, including one by Elizabeth City State College President Walter N. Ridley.

Glen Bowman

By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

When Martin Luther King Jr. was as­sas­si­nated in Mem­phis 50 years ago to­day, ri­ots broke out in many Amer­i­can cities. Elizabeth City, how­ever, fol­lowed King’s peace­ful ex­am­ple as it was ar­tic­u­lated lo­cally by a Catholic priest, the pres­i­dent of what was then El­iz­a­beth City State Col­lege, and the leader of the col­lege’s Stu­dent Coun­cil.

On April 7, 1968, just three days after King’s assassination, a silent march was held from the campus to the Pasquotank County Courthouse.

An editorial in the April 9, 1968 edition of The Daily Advance attributed the slaying of King to “a dreadful compulsion of white racism” and lauded the Elizabeth City State College students who marched from the campus to the courthouse for a tribute to King.

Rather than riot as students had done in some other places, the editorial commented, the Elizabeth City State students “chose instead to be Americans and argue in a quiet way that there is indeed a hope, something stouter than a dream, that someday there will be more linked hands abreast and a lot of the knuckles will be white.”

Glen Bowman, professor of history at Elizabeth City State University, said about 1,000 people marched silently in Elizabeth City in what was described at the time as a solemn and dignified event. Many students participated in the march but the crowd also included non-students, Bowman said.

The march was led by Father J.P. Robinson, priest at St. Catherine’s Catholic Church in Elizabeth City.

A bulletin about memorial events that was distributed on campus before the march indicated it would be “a silent march of the highest dignity.”

The editorial in The Daily Advance stated the marchers “moved in a silence almost thunderous, so impressive, so dignified it was.”

Robinson was quoted in the newspaper ahead of the march as saying the event “is not a demonstration in any sense and it is not a ‘black’ march. It and the service are for people of goodwill of both races and everyone who wants to is invited and encouraged to participate.”

When the marchers arrived at the county courthouse they paid tribute to King with speeches by a number of people, including Elizabeth City State College President Walter N. Ridley. About 2,000 people, including the marchers and also those who met them at the courthouse, attended the service on the courthouse lawn.

“It is time for good people to speak up for what is true and right,” Ridley said in his speech, as reported in The Daily Advance the next day.

Police Chief W.C. Owens of the Elizabeth City Police Department was quoted at the time as saying he was pleased there were no violent incidents in the city in the aftermath of King’s assassination.

“I want to commend both races,” Owens said, according to The Daily Advance.

Bowman said that after King was assassinated there was widespread expectation that violence would break out across the country. There was violence that took place in some cities and on many campuses, he said.

“But it did not take place here,” Bowman said.

Bowman said the nonviolent effort led by students from Elizabeth City State played a crucial role in preventing a local outbreak of violence.

“The students had a major role,” Bowman said.

Students on campus responded immediately to the news of the assassination, led by the student government, which at that time was known as the Student Council.

Student Council President Charles Singleton was very active in the aftermath of King’s assassination, presenting two speeches that were called “Stay the Course” and “The Cross of Freedom.”