Tom Loewy: MLK's legacy still a work in progress

Tom Loewy

Vie Maxwell was a typical 16-year-old high school junior during the late-winter, early spring months of 1968.

“I was thinking about my senior year coming up and part-time jobs for the summer,” she said Wednesday evening. “I was the typical teenager thinking teenaged stuff — about dances and boys.”

Maxwell has lived in Galesburg for 12 years and is 56. She recalled more detail about 1968 after a brief pause.

“I was really into reading. I read historical romances and I was really into Greek mythology. Overall, I must say I was looking forward to getting out of high school.”

Those thoughts changed on April 4, after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed while standing on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

King had been in Memphis since March 30 to support striking sanitation workers.

“I remember hearing that Dr. King was shot and then, later, we heard he died,” she said. “I just remember wondering ‘what will black people do now.’ I remember wondering ‘who will lead us.’ I was wondering that as a black person and as just a person.

“King was so much more than a quote-unquote black leader.”

In the hours after King was pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Hospital, riots broke out in cities across the country. The rage surprised Maxwell.

“I never thought there would be violence,” she said. “I had always admired Dr. King. I had never heard a black man take a stand like he did — a non-violent stand.

“He was non-violent, but he had a strength. He was very eloquent, very graceful. And he was really going out on a limb for black people and poor people and against the war.”

Maxwell saw a both overt and subtle racism in Chicago. At the age of 15 she and her parents moved from a black neighborhood on Chicago’s south side to a mixed neighborhood. Her father worked in a steel mill and mother worked in a sewing factory. She spent her junior and senior years of high school at Lindbloom Technical, a co-ed school in a white neighborhood.

There were always people who stared at Maxwell because of the color of her skin. Sometimes epithets rode on whispers and sideways glances.

Within the year of the Maxwell family’s arrival, their mixed neighborhood became predominantly black. She saw people move away from Lindbloom, too. Confederate flags might not have been common sights in Chicago neighborhoods, but white flight was alive and well in cities large and small from Boston to Los Angeles.

“At the time of Dr. King’s death I felt that great progress was being made in the area of civil rights, and with this progress came a lot of suffering and pain,” Maxwell said. “I really didn’t understand why it was so hard for the white people of that time to see that black people were human beings and they should have the same rights as were afforded to them.

“Dr. King’s death hung as a dark cloud in my mind and I wondered if all the progress we had made would somehow become null and void. It appeared that anyone who had the interest of black people at heart were being snuffed out by the assassin’s bullet.”

Today, King’s deeds — the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, opposition to the Vietnam War and the Poor People’s Campaign, to name just a few — have been condensed into sound bites and film clips. His impact echoes down through time and offers a reminder of society’s progress and shortcomings.

Lorenzo Pugh is 26, works as the Regional Office of Education’s director of truancy and has lived in Galesburg most of his life. He never lived while King was alive.

“I think Dr. King was talked about more when I was kid, but I was a teenager before I was educated about him,” Pugh said. “He was, and still is, the standard of what it means to be a strong, educated, black man in America. I believe he set the standard for others to follow.”

Pugh is an African-American in a predominantly white setting. Like Maxwell, he said King offered a vision for all people.

“King left us with a hope for more people to realize that people are people, nobody is better then the next, it doesn’t matter what side of the tracks you’re from, your social status or race,” Pugh said. “Accept and respect people for who they are because every single individual is special in their own way.”

Bill Spilman is white and in his late 30s. Like Pugh, he’s spent most of his life in Galesburg and has come to see King as more than a civil rights leader.

“I was not aware until a few years ago of King’s work on the Poor People’s Campaign shortly before his death,” Spilman said. “I mostly see King as a civil rights leader, a voice for a movement that called for necessary change. But he was so much more than that, and provided hope to so many.”

On the evening before he was gunned down, King addressed a rally in the Mason Temple on the eve of a march to support the sanitation workers.

“... we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through,” King said. “And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.

“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”

Those words are part of what is commonly called King’s “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” address. He’s still waiting for all of us.

Tom Loewy can be reached at