A year of historic anniversaries

1/13/2018, 11:42 a.m.
“It is not an overstatement to say that the destiny of the entire human race depends on what is going ...
Marc H. Morial

Marc H. Morial

“It is not an overstatement to say that the destiny of the entire human race depends on what is going on in America today. This is a staggering reality to the rest of the world; they must feel like passengers in a supersonic jetliner who are forced to watch helplessly while a passel of drunks, hypes, freaks, and madmen fight for the controls and the pilot’s seat.” – From “Soul on Ice” by Eldridge Cleaver, 1968

As we embark upon the new year of 2018, we step into the 50th anniversary of a year that shook the world, in particular the world of civil rights in the United States.

Perhaps the most momentous of these events were the assassinations of Dr. Martín Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Both of these tragic deaths hold personal significance for my family. My parents, civil rights activists, were personally acquainted with Dr. King. My mother, Sybil Morial, and Dr. King were students together at Boston University while she pursued her master’s in education and he his Ph.D. in theology.

In her memoir, “Witness to Change: From Jim Crow to Political Empowerment,” she writes of the moment on April 4, 1968, when she learned of his death:

“I could hardly grasp the words: Martin Luther King has been shot to death in Memphis. Dutch was in the study. I called to him, and he came and stood by me. ‘Martin has been killed.’ I could hardly say the words; I could hardly believe it. Not Martin. Dutch and I watched the gruesome footage in silence.

“I said to Dutch, ‘Now that Martin is gone, what will become of the movement?’ It will go on. It must.”

My late father-in-law, Ross Miller, was a trauma surgeon and Kennedy campaigner who was present at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968. When the shots rang out, he bravely stepped forward and tried to save the lives of Mr. Kennedy and others who where wounded.

These deaths were but two of the civil rights milestones of that historic year a half-century ago.

On Feb. 8, 1968, the Orangeburg Massacre took place in South Carolina. Highway patrol officers opened fire on a crowd of 200 students gathered on the campus of South Carolina State University to demonstrate against the continued segregation at the bowling alley. Three young men were killed and 27 other protesters were injured.

On April 11, 1968, amid continuing unrest triggered by Dr. King’s murder, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed one of the most significant laws of the era — the Civil Rights Act of 1968, more commonly known as the Fair Housing Act. The act prohibited not only racial and religious discrimination in the sale or rental of a home, but also racially motivated threats, intimidation or retaliation in relation to housing.

In a move often cited as inspirational by current activists, African-American Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their arms in a black power salute after winning the gold and bronze medals in the men’s 200 meters during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

Nov. 22, 1968, saw the first interracial kiss ever to air on television in the United States, between characters Capt. James Kirk and Lt. Nyota Uhura on “Star Trek.”

In the coming year, we will observe many of these anniversaries in-depth. We begin the year reflecting on a half-century of civil rights progress and the progress that lies ahead.

The writer is president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League.