Dr. King Was Only One of Many Martyrs
by Jo Freeman
Located in Montgomery, Alabama, around the corner from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church that was Dr. King’s first pastorate, its theme is Justice. The Biblical quotation on its wall was borrowed by Dr. King for his Aug. 28, 1963 speech. It says "We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."
In front of the wall is a black granite table with the names of 40 people who were killed in seven states between the May 17, 1954 Brown decision and Dr. King’s assassination on April 4,1968. Most were black men; six were female; seven were children; eight were white. Some were killed for being "uppity;" some because they were actively working for civil rights; some as random acts of white-on-black violence. Dr. King, the last on the list, was killed for being Dr. King.
What they have in common is that justice for their deaths was a long time coming, and for some it has yet to arrive. In the South in those days, some killings were simply not crimes. As press secretary George Reedy told President Johnson in October of 1965 "In ... certain Southern communities ... the white residents .... believe that they have the same right to exterminate civil rights workers that a farmer has to kill rabid dogs. It is absolutely inconceivable to them that a man can be tried and convicted for such actions."
The first four listed on the table were killed in 1955: three in Mississippi and one in Texas. Only the name of Emmitt Till is much remembered today. His murderers confessed in public print a few months after they were acquitted by a jury of their peers. In two of the deaths, no one was ever charged. A Texas jury convicted one killer after a full confession, then suspended his five-year sentence so he could walk free.
Six were killed in 1965: five in Alabama and one in Louisiana. The killers of two black men were never charged. The killers of three whites were tried and acquitted. The third black man — a guy driving home from work shot by a carload of whites who had just left a rally of the National States Rights Party and were showing off their macho — got a modicum of justice. Three of his killers were convicted and sentenced to ten years.