It has been 50 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Much has been written about his murder, but what did the Grand Rapids Press have to say about the incident when it happened?
There was front page coverage of the King assassination and subsequent articles. Most of the coverage was about the particulars of the assassination, what the Press calls a “national mourning,” and Negro violence.
In dozens of US cities, an uprising broke out, as Black people enraged at the murder of Dr. King took it out on the White population for this criminal act. Not surprising, the commercial media simply framed the uprising as unjustified violence. There were reports of violence done to property, looting and rioting. There was also reports of violence directed at police officers.
Such actions were completely understandable when one considers that a Black uprising had been going on for years. The commercial media and the Grand Rapids Press did not frame it that way, but any competent scholarship understands that an uprising was inevitable. The Watts uprising was one of the first major forms of insurgency, but the 1967 uprisings were a major threat to White Supremacy. The fact that an uprising took place in the aftermath of the King assassination, only underscores the level of frustration with institutionalized racism, which seemed impenetrable.
In an article, “Murder Shocks Citizens,” the Press sought first to get reaction to the death of Dr. King from White citizens. Mrs. Daniel Kerwin stated, “It was disgraceful. There is something wrong somewhere, something terribly wrong with our people. I hope and I feel that Dr. King’s death will be a stepping stone to erasing the bigotry in our country.”
Mrs. John Condon said, “I am humiliated and ashamed. I’s ashamed for the white man who did it and ashamed for the white race. I have no where America is going from here.”
Mrs. John C. Sprik stated, “I was surprised that he didn’t get it before. It seems that the leader of anything, one way or another, they get them.”
Mary Wreford of Bemis St. SE said, “I am shocked that White people could be shocked. It is surprising that they didn’t realize before the raving madness that affects this whole nation.”
There were also various reactions from the Black community. Rev. Lyman Parks (who later became Grand Rapids Mayor), was asked his opinion on the direction that America would take. “I don’t know. I just don’t know. But I think it becomes the responsibility of us who believe in the techniques of nonviolence preached by Dr. King.”
Jerome Sorrels, president of the NAACP in Grand Rapids stated, “I am deeply shocked. I know of no man who could step in and fill Dr. King’s shoes. From here on, the future looks dim to me.”
Reggie Gatling, referred to as a black power militant, said, “Members of the black community had a meeting last night and decided we would not give out a public statement that would be reflective of feelings. We’re in mourning for Dr. King, but to say anything further would only give comfort, or possibly discomfort, to white racists.”
And Gerald Brown, another black power advocate and Carl Smith, director of the Black People’s Free store, said Gatling’s statement was “correct.”
Defending Business as Usual in Grand Rapids
It is instructive that the Second Ward City Commissioner, William Worst stated, “I’m happy though that our community is taking this calmly and not resorting to any unusual violence.” This is really code for, “thank God the Black people are not rioting.”
In another Press article, “Grand Rapids officials recognized, however, that the situation still was touchy Saturday, and denied a request for a permit to hold a peaceful, silent march in tribute to Dr. King.
Mayor Sonneveldt said, “I discussed the request with the department heads of the city and it was the consensus that it would not be wise to permit such a demonstration.”
The Mayor had said earlier, “I’m proud of our city,” as matters remained normal in the community, while violence erupted across the nation.
Black people would be denied the right to a peaceful assembly to morn the death of Dr. King and the White power structure would maintain business as usual, or as the Grand Rapids Press said, as matters remained normal.