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A Look Back • After MLK's assassination, St. Louis marched and prayed
A Look Back

A Look Back • After MLK's assassination, St. Louis marched and prayed

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ST. LOUIS • The news flashed from Memphis, Tenn., on the evening of April 4, 1968: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot by a sniper. Anger exploded in cities across the nation.

In downtown St. Louis, almost 100 black inmates in the old jail rioted at 8:30 p.m., barely 90 minutes after King was pronounced dead. They ripped away plumbing and started small fires. Some shouted, "They killed our leader."

Police fired tear gas into the cellblocks, then hustled coughing, handcuffed inmates across Clark Avenue to police headquarters. Later that night, business windows were shattered at North Kingshighway and Page Avenue. A firebomb was thrown at a grocery, but didn't ignite.

Overnight, riots erupted in Washington, Memphis, Boston, Chicago.

The next morning, 75 local civil-rights leaders met at the Mid-City Community Congress, 4005 Delmar Boulevard, to plan a memorial march for Palm Sunday, two days hence. With everyone on edge, militants and moderates shouted at each other. There were demands to bar white politicians and police officers. A militant, James Rollins, bluntly warned of the plans, "If we militants don't go along with it, you're not going to have a nonviolent march."

Morris Hatchett, a World War II pilot and head of the local NAACP, stood firm against violence: "We're all black. ... This battle of name-calling has got to go." They announced the march together.

On Saturday, the national death toll was 19 as riots spread to Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Minneapolis.

St. Louis and East St. Louis reported more firebombs and smashed windows. Somehow, none of that touched off rioting. So far, Hatchett's hope was holding.

About 7,500 people gathered at the Gateway Arch on Sunday. Led by organizers locked arm-in-arm, they marched eight miles to Forest Park. Thousands more joined downtown, including Mayor Alfonso J. Cervantes and St. Louis County Supervisor Lawrence K. Roos. The assembly grew to 30,000 as it came down Union Boulevard toward the park.

News reports said about 60 percent of the marchers were black. Most of the whites were near the back of the 20-block-long line parade. Some marchers carried banners. Many sang civil rights songs.

Five white girls stood along Union holding a sign: "Your loss is ours, too."

Police wore black armbands and stood back as the parade's volunteer marshals kept the peace during the 2½-hour march. Once in the park, the crowd grew even larger.

"We should honor the memory of the great apostle of freedom, justice and love," the Rev. Vinton R. Anderson, of St. Paul AME Church, told the weary marchers. "We have lived up to our commitment."

More churches held memorials. More fires were set. But St. Louis didn't burn.

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