The Day Dr. King Died: Timuel Black reflects on End and Beginning of an Era

On Wednesday, April 4, the University of Chicago Civic Knowledge Project hosted “The Day Dr. King Died,” a conversation with civil rights activist and oral historian Dr. Timuel Black as part of a series of events for its Martin Luther King Initiative. The MLK Initiative was designed to research the roots of King’s philosophy of nonviolence, his role in the civil rights movement, and to call attention to the ongoing relevance of his life and work. 

The 99-year-old Black, a central figure during the civil rights movement, worked directly with King and helped to organize the march on Washington. He has spent his entire life giving a voice, and a history and past, not only to civil rights for the nation, but specifically to his hometown of Chicago. This World War II veteran thought his toughest battle would be during the Battle of the Bulge in Normandy. Yet even as a soldier, Black experienced racism, “I could be a soldier and fight, but still had to be told where to sit on the bus.” He recalls that upon coming home, he faced his most daunting battle, one he is continuing to fight–the fight for equality for all. 

In conversation with Professor Bart Schultz, executive director of the Civic Knowledge Project, Brother Black–as King referred to his friend and fellow activist–recounted his time with King, speaking passionately and even humorously about his time working with civil rights leaders, and the days after King’s assassination. “It was a real pleasure working with Dr. King. He exemplified and articulated my feelings and the feelings of others about civil rights. It was easy to follow him, even though many of us had to be trained to nonviolence. Our respect for Dr. King made it easy to follow him and his philosophy.” Black witnessed many occasions where police were waiting for protestors to respond with violence and it was this commitment to nonviolent resistance that actually gave Black pause with regards to King’s safety. 

“I was constantly worried that he would be killed, that his attitude and behavior would cause an attack.” Black was not with King on the day of his assassination. “I was so angry I wasn’t there – my father was ill and I was visiting him in the hospital. In the elevator, people were talking about his death, and I remember saying, “I wish it was you that had been killed, and not Dr. King.’” In that moment Black, so overcome about the death of his friend, did not care what he said. 

For Black, King’s assassination did not stop the movement, rather it fueled the continuation of his work that would remain committed to nonviolent action to combat inequality. After spending nearly his entire life fighting for civil rights, Black, who will celebrate his 100th birthday in December, is ready for the young people to take up the mantle and continue King’s legacy. “To carry on the work, young people have to exemplify the history, and listen to the older people, listen to those who have seen and remember Dr. King and his legacy and efforts to bring about equality.” Black believes that all efforts for equal treatment have political impact. “Politics are universal,” he explains, “When two people get together and talk, there is politics, the question is whether it is a dictatorship or a partnership. Which do you choose?”

Held in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, the spiritual and ceremonial center of the University, “The Day Dr. King Died” represents a historic nod to the Chapel’s place in the movement. “It was from Rockefeller Chapel's pulpit that Dr. King gave his first major address in Chicago at the age of 27, an event we regularly commemorate at the Chapel. And Timuel Black was involved in making that very event happen, back in 1956,” explains Rockefeller Chapel Dean Elizabeth J.L. Davenport. “What more appropriate place could there be today for him to ruminate upon Dr. King's life and legacy?"

Along with Black, the Civic Knowledge Project organized the MLK Initiative with the input of Reverend Jesse Jackson and Reverend Michael L. Pfleger, pastor of the faith community of St. Sabina. “Dr. King’s message should not be reduced to just one day,” explains Schultz on the purpose of the MLK initiative, “We should all be working together to make sure that the full force of Dr. King’s message is felt for years to come.”

Among the other MLK Initiative events, which began in November 2017, were a discussion led by Father Pfleger on “What Dr. King Means to Me;” weekly talks at RainbowPUSH on topics such as prisons and education, affordable housing, and a screening and discussion of the MLK-themed works from the South Side Home Movie Project, a collection of home movies about Chicago’s South Side; and a discussion on King’s philosophy of nonviolent direct action. Additional events are being planned for later in the spring.

Originally posted April 12, 2018

Share this Page