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The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is shown in Washington August 22, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed

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By Jane Ross

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Bob Singleton only met civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. once, but that meeting changed his life. 

As the 50th anniversary of King's death approaches on April 4, Singleton and others have been reflecting on the man who inspired them and the legacy he left behind.

It was early 1961 and the then 24-year-old college student was protesting against Woolworths' racially segregated southern lunch counters at a picket line outside the company's Hollywood, California, store when King was introduced to him by a mutual acquaintance.

"He marched with us in front of the Woolworths store and that really made me, from that point on, an organizer," said Singleton, now 81.

Soon after that meeting, Singleton organised a group of University of California Los Angeles students to travel to Jackson, Mississippi, to enforce federal desegregation laws at the train terminal. 

They were known as the Freedom Riders, and among the group was Singleton’s wife, Helen, now 85. She, too, was inspired by King. 

"He was able to make you feel that, whatever burden you might be carrying, carry it with dignity and hope. And then also take action," she said. 

The Singletons and hundreds of other young Freedom Riders were arrested and jailed. But by November 1961, the federal Interstate Commerce Commission's ruling prohibiting segregation on interstate transportation facilities was being enforced across the South.

"We won that battle," said Bob Farrell, 81, who was arrested in Houston, Texas, in one of the last organised Freedom Rides in August, 1961. "Inside of one year we contributed to changing public policy that had been there since the beginning of the 20th century."

But the civil rights struggle was far from over. King was killed on a motel balcony in Memphis by an avowed segregationist on April 4, 1968.

Farrell travelled to Atlanta for his funeral.

"I can remember what it was like finally getting over to Ebenezer Baptist Church and preparing for the great march to Morehouse College where Dr. King was going to be temporarily buried," he said.

"The silence, the silence once the body came out of the church, the silence on that long march and then the memorial celebration at Morehouse College with the speakers," he said. "It was just something I've never experienced before or since."

The Singletons and Farrell agree there has been significant progress in racial equality in the five decades since King's death, but all are dismayed at the current state of U.S. race relations. 

"The fact that, 50 years later, there's so much still to be done just demonstrates to me and to others how deep, how very, very deep white supremacy, its premises and the dynamic that still propels our nation, is still there," Farrell said.

(Reporting by Jane Ross; Editing by Paul Tait)

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Reuters