The April 4, 1968, assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a memorable event for two local residents who attended a Tuesday program on the civil-rights movement at Newport Library.
“I thought it was awful. I was home alone doing my homework for YSU,” said Mary Ann O’Neil of Youngstown, a retired social worker. “I remember seeing it on TV,” she said, adding that her initial reaction was one of disbelief. “I was really shocked, and I just couldn’t believe it could happen here in America.”
The program, which included a discussion among participants, consisted of a presentation by librarian Cyndi Hickman, which covered key events in the national civil-rights movement during the 1950s and ’60s, including the shooting death of King in Memphis, Tenn.
“This coincided directly with the real rise in interest in anti-war activities on the Youngstown State [University] campus,” said Robert Hancock of Boardman, referring to the King assassination. Hancock is retired from Leetonia High School, where he taught Spanish, and was a YSU student in 1968.
“I was 19 years old, and it was becoming increasingly obvious that what this country was doing in Vietnam was just hideous,” Hancock said.
“This really galvanized everything. My whole political world, my whole intellectual world was dominated by these events until my graduation in 1970, and then on to the marches in Washington” against the Vietnam War, Hancock said.
Hancock said his focus was on the anti-war movement. “But, there was that joining of the two forces” after the King assassination, Hancock said of the civil-rights and anti-war movements. “That’s why 1968 is the most incredibly important year” for movements for social change in the United States, he said.
Hancock lamented that some of the gains in voter access that were promoted by landmark civil-rights legislation, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, have been eroded in recent years.
“You’re sitting in a state where voting rights are being dialed back,” he said, referring to voter-identification laws, restrictions on early voting and other attempts to impede voter participation. “All over the country, we are seeing a real attempt to dial back the voting process to minorities,” he added.
Hickman’s program also covered activities of the Underground Railroad, as Northeast Ohio abolitionists ran a secret network of safe-houses that helped slaves flee to Canada and freedom in the pre-Civil War years.
She showed photos of many of the Underground Railroad safe houses that remain standing in Salem, which are marked with historic-site designation signs. Although their exteriors can be viewed on a driving tour of that city, they are in private ownership, and their interiors are not accessible to the public.
Also shown was the last stop for escaping slaves, the Hubbard house in Ashtabula, which sits on a bluff over Lake Erie’s Walnut Beach, and which is open for interior tours.