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Students visit MLK killing site

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – As John Rhodes sat silently in front of a site that changed America, many aspects of history jumped out of the standard textbooks and took on a far sharper clarity for him.

“I’m lucky to know more about civil rights than most people do,” John, 15, a Columbiana High School junior, said. “I learned about the relationship between King and the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and organizing behind the scenes.”

That perspective made itself more acutely felt after he and fellow Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past members and their California counterparts saw the outside of the Lorraine Motel (now a civil rights museum) on Friday — and sat mere yards from where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated April 4, 1968.

King was in Memphis to lead a peaceful protest on behalf of the city’s 1,300 sanitation workers who had voted to strike Feb. 12, 1968, because of terrible working conditions, unlivable wages, no sick days and no health care coverage. About a week before he was killed, King had led a march that was marred by violence after some protesters broke windows to storefronts on Beale Street, and a 16-year-old named Larry Payne was killed.

It later came out that the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, had paid them to commit violence largely to ruin King’s reputation as a nonviolent leader and stop the Poor People’s Campaign he was beginning to organize to take poor blacks, whites, Latinos and others to Washington, D.C., to force the government to address systemic poverty.

John added that he’s grateful also to learn about those most closely associated with King, such as the late Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, at whose home King was to have had dinner on the night he was shot. Kyles came early to visit King in Room 306 and was able to spend the last hour of King’s life with him.

The civil rights icon and humanitarian was one of America’s great leaders also because he continued to push for nonviolence with “no delusions of grandeur.” He also was more than willing to help those who were poor, John continued.

Some in the group were brought to tears as Jeff Steinberg, Sojourn to the Past’s founder and director, played about 10 minutes of King’s “Mountaintop” speech, which he delivered the night before his assassination at Mason Masonic Temple in Memphis, as the group faced where he had stood on the balcony. Toward the end of the 42-minute speech, some say, King seemed to be delivering his own eulogy and appeared to be aware of his impending death, Steinberg observed.

Beforehand, Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past members and the others studied Elizabeth Eckford of Little Rock, Ark., who was among the nine black students to have integrated the all-white Central High School in 1957 in the city.

Eckford, they learned, had been harassed and threatened by a large white mob on what should have been her first day of school. In addition to hurling racial epithets at her, some threatened to lynch the 15-year-old student as they followed close behind.

Eckford was the only one of the nine to walk into the teeth of the mob, and her torment continued long after she had entered the school. She still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, Steinberg told the group.

The Sojourn participants are to meet her today in Little Rock.

Those who take part in the journey also are encouraged to apply what they learned from the civil rights icons they meet and convert their knowledge and passion into ideas and plans to impact their communities, as well as become more aware of the corrosive and long-term damaging effects of derogatory, degrading and racist language.

As a result, Penny Wells, Mahoning Valley STTP’s executive director, met with the students and adults Friday evening in Memphis to hash out a variety of possible action steps that can be taken after they return home.

Ideas discussed included working on tackling the spate of violence in Youngstown, establishing a site to honor those lost to violence while giving them a place to heal, creating greater outreach in high-crime areas, continuing to deliver workshops on nonviolence to schools and elsewhere, and educating others regarding today’s voter-suppression efforts, the stories of little-known civil rights figures, and the history of violence and racism in the U.S.

Educating others is what John Rhodes hopes to do as well, he said.

“Ignorance is the mortal enemy of democracy. We need to educate everyone on minority history and the civil rights movement to get closer to a more perfect union,” he added.

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