It was after supper, and Bill Turner was studying for senior finals when his friend Jim Embry ran into the library to tell him the news: “Bill, they killed Dr. King!”
Turner and Embry were two of only a few dozen black students at the University of Kentucky on April 4, 1968, when civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
“We were totally stunned,” Turner said. “There were certain levels of catastrophe that were unthinkable.”
The next evening, Turner and Embry had been scheduled to make brief remarks before Muhammad Ali spoke at a UK student forum on social inequity in Memorial Coliseum. Ali canceled to be with King’s family in Atlanta, so the Student Government Association asked Turner to take his place.
After the Black Student Union held a memorial service in front of UK’s Administration Building, Turner stood on the Memorial Coliseum stage before 11,000 people. It was Lexington’s largest gathering at this pivotal moment in history.
Turner sought advice on the speech from his mentor, John Stephenson. The sociology professor listened to his ideas but said, “Billy, I can’t tell you what to say.”
Turner was 21, one of 10 children of a poor Harlan County coal miner. He began his speech by saying he would “offend some people.” He was right.
Lexington, one of the nation’s largest Antebellum slave markets, had a long history of racism and segregation. Black people had little power, and change was coming slowly. “It was a very proper town where certain things just didn’t get discussed,” Turner said.
UK was the same. White fans at ballgames waved Confederate flags and sang “Dixie.” Basketball coach Adolph Rupp didn’t want black players on his team. Black students were ignored by many classmates and shunned in their dormitories.
“The ‘N’ word was scrawled on my door so often it didn’t even bother me anymore,” Turner said.
Embry, a freshman, recalled a white student saying to his face that he was glad King had been killed, because he was a trouble-maker. “To a large extent, many people felt we were upsetting the apple cart,” he said.
Turner remembers speaking deliberately that night, and feeling a bit intimidated by the size of the crowd.
“White America, you have taught me to hate and fear, you have taught it from year to year, you have drummed it from ear to ear,” he said. “The death of Dr. King epitomizes this hate and fear.”
If white people want peace, Turner warned, they must change.
“It shall be largely your task, white America, to resolve the ‘black Frankenstein’ that you have created,” he said. “It shall be your task, your moral commitment, and perchance your self-preserving duty to resolve the social inequities that exist in white and black America.
“White America, I would much rather have my equality through peaceful and nonviolent tactics that Dr. King loved and lived so dearly,” he concluded. “But if you would rather die in keeping me a slave, then I am willing to die in having my freedom. Thank you.”
Turner recalls the coliseum falling silent, and then a standing ovation. SGA would later give him an award as Student Speaker of the Year.
That weekend, Turner, Embry and two friends left Lexington for Atlanta in Embry’s Ford Galaxie. Through one friend’s connections, they became marshals for King’s funeral. As two mules pulled a rustic wagon carrying King’s coffin through Atlanta’s streets, they walked in front wearing armbands to clear the way.
In the two weeks they were away, Lexington started changing.
Reaction across the city by both blacks and whites was not well-reported. News coverage in the morning Herald and afternoon Leader focused on the national story, mainly the riots and looting that King’s assassination sparked in big cities. As the Herald-Leader chronicled in a 2004 series, the newspapers’ management at the time downplayed local civil rights coverage so as not to upset its predominantly white readers and advertisers.
But Don Mills, who edited the Herald’s editorial page, didn’t pull punches.
“The racial violence of black against white is only a continuation of unending decades of racial violence of white against black,” one editorial said. “It has been going on so long that it is built into the system. There must be a new dedication to justice if there is to be a new dedication to law and order, and just law entails not only statutes but the entire system that holds some back and pushes others forward with race as a divider.”
There were memorial services around town, and Mayor Charles Wylie proclaimed three days of mourning. “Our nation has lost a leader of great courage and steadfast principles,” he said.
The Herald and Leader reported some local violence — dozens of broken windows and a few fires, mostly in the “Negro” East End.
But the tragedy spurred some in Lexington’s white community to action. The Lexington Ministerial Association called a meeting of local clergy at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church. Five white protestant ministers, a Catholic priest and a rabbi formed the Urban Crisis Committee of Lexington and called for a “commitment to equity and dignity of all peoples.” The committee organized a public meeting that filled Second Presbyterian Church.
A campaign to raise $25,000 to start a local chapter of the Urban League, then headed nationally by Louisville native Whitney Young, suddenly gained traction, with the business community pledging $18,000.
A dozen days after King’s assassination, the Herald reported that the local Congress of Racial Equality gave the mayor a list of demands, including integration of the fire department, a police review board and better treatment of black kids in schools.
Fifty years later, Embry remains an activist in Central Kentucky, focusing on civil rights and sustainable agriculture.
Turner said he has never regretted what he said in that speech. And he noted that civil rights activists have been saying many of the same things ever since, most recently after police shootings of unarmed black men.
“The more it changes, the more it has remained the same,” he said. “I’m still not sure how many people have committed to this being a pluralistic society.”