Utah activists and academics recall days of organizing, silent marches and gradual progress after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death 50 years ago

(AP Photo/Charles Kelly, File) In this April 3, 1968, file photo, Martin Luther King Jr. makes his last public appearance at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn. The next day, King was assassinated on his motel balcony.

In the 1960s, as news of the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. dominated headlines, the small number of black people living in Utah dealt with quiet forms of racism.

At Weber State College, where the Black Students Union was created in 1968, “a lot of [students] felt a certain amount of bigotry, especially when they would try to find housing in the community,” recalled Byron Warfield-Graham, one of the group’s founders. “… It wasn’t set up where they had it in the law. It’s just that people would discriminate.”

In Salt Lake City, black people and their allies “discovered that the racism that was so clearly identified with the American South was alive and well in the Intermountain West,” said Ronald Coleman, professor emeritus of history at the University of Utah — who was a star running back at the U. from 1963 to 1965.

And then came tragedy, with King killed by a sniper’s bullet in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.

(Photo courtesy of the Weber State University Archives) The leadership of Weber State's Black Scholars Union poses for a photo in 1969. Sitting left to right: Ruth Lamb, assistant secretary-treasurer; Linda Sessions, secretary-treasurer; Edwina Harper, historian; Sterling Harris, assistant publicity chairman; Byron Warfield-Graham, publicity chairman; Skip Simmons, black athletes coordinator. Standing: Jerry Reed, assistant black athletes coordinator; James Robinson, coordinator of council (official spokesman); Charles Harlin, education chairman.

“There was a lot of weeping and mourning. A lot of people were in shock,” said Warfield-Graham, now a human-resources consultant in the San Diego area.

There were rumors, he said, that more militant forces wanted to march on the Ogden campus, coming from off campus and even from Salt Lake City. Under some pressure from the administration, Warfield-Graham negotiated a truce so there would be no campus demonstration.

Some wanted to stage a campus protest. “This was one of the times when a lot of the members wanted to really act out,” said Warfield-Graham, who was a political-science major and wrote for the student newspaper. “I don’t want to make it sound like they wanted to go out and start being violent. They wanted to do something that let people know that we weren’t particularly happy with someone like Dr. Martin Luther King just being slaughtered.”

“I cut the deal. I said, ‘If anything comes down, just blame it on me.’ I caught all kinds of hell,” he said.

Utah reacts

A look at the pages of a Salt Lake Tribune issue from early April 1968 reveals a subdued reaction to King’s assassination in overwhelmingly white Utah. The 1970 census would show whites made up 97.4 percent of Utah’s population of just over a million people.

King’s death prompted statements of concern and condolence from Utah’s political leaders. At The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 138th Annual General Conference, which began the next day, one speaker — Hugh B. Brown, first counselor in the governing First Presidency — was quoted as mentioning King’s death, expressing “deep sorrow and shock” at the news.

One 8-year-old white girl, on crutches after a skiing mishap, was inspired to join a single-file march Sunday, April 7, three days after King’s death. The silent crowd walked down South Temple, toward the Federal Building in downtown Salt Lake City.

“I remember very clearly the silence and the solemnity of the event itself, which I’m sure I couldn’t have been prepared for. I remember that people were just quietly moving along, weeping,” recalled Katharine Coles, now a professor of English at the U., and formerly Utah’s poet laureate. “That had an enormous impact on me going forward from that moment.”

Coles, though she was 8 when King was killed, was already politically aware.

“My parents were activists, they were very deeply involved in Salt Lake City in the peace movement, and there really was such a thing in Salt Lake City,” she said. “That was kind of the water I think that I swam in as a kid.”

Her experience with blacks was limited to the cleaning woman hired by her parents, both academics. “She was the only black person I knew until I was in junior high school,” Coles said. “I supposed that I both loved her and, I hope, I understood in some way that was this was an unequal and probably unjust social construction that we were participating in. … It was part of the fabric of the reality in which we lived.”

(Tribune file photo) Katharine Coles participates in a memorial march for Martin Luther King in 1968. She was 8 years old.

The marchers, a Tribune reporter wrote at the time, “were of all ages — from the elderly to children down to kindergarten age. They were of all colors of skin.” It was cloudy, and the wind was blowing.

“We were all wearing our Easter clothes,” Coles recalled. “It felt very funereal. I had been maybe to one funeral at that point in my life. That’s what it felt like: a funeral march, and that kind of grief over it.”

She said she felt “not just the grief at the loss, but the way in which something that had felt forward-moving and hopeful, at that moment, suddenly lost a lot of that sense of luminosity and hopefulness.”

A photographer for The Tribune took Coles’ picture, and it ran in the next morning’s newspaper.

“After that picture came out, my third-grade teacher, in front of the class, told me that my parents were traitors to the country,” Coles said. “I went home just weeping, copiously. … My mom was livid.” Her mother made a call to the school later that day. The next school year, Coles said, that teacher’s contract was not renewed.

A slow evolution

The evolution of racial tolerance was gradual and often slow in Utah.

Coleman graduated from the University of Utah in 1965 and left the state to pursue a career — so he wasn’t in Utah in 1968 to see the response to King’s death. He returned in 1973 to teach at the U., and he noticed some differences.

“By that time, the state Legislature had taken some steps to be more conforming to the general initiatives of civil rights in the country,” Coleman said. He credited then-Gov. Calvin Rampton for making Utah government more inclusive, forming offices for Black Affairs, Hispanic Affairs and Indian Affairs.

“There was a visibility of diverse populations, not only in the university but in education, the business and private sector, and government at city and state levels,” Coleman said. “It’s one thing to change the statutes, but it’s another to change the hearts and minds of the larger population.”

Warfield-Graham said it took steady lobbying from students to get Weber State to start hiring black professors in the early 1970s. The Black Students Union — soon renamed Black Scholars United (BSU), after similarly named groups on other campuses became associated with violence — organized the school’s first Black History Week and worked to bring in such guest speakers to the Ogden campus as comedian Dick Gregory and basketball legend Bill Russell.

Once, he said, Weber State’s BSU teamed up with groups from Utah State University and the University of Utah to bring Muhammad Ali — barred from boxing at the time because of his refusal to be drafted to go to Vietnam — to speak in Salt Lake City and Logan.

Latino students, international students and others soon followed BSU’s model. “You began to see some other kinds of groups,” Warfield-Graham said. “Now, as I understand it, they have all kinds of groups.”

It wasn’t until the early 1980s that the U. hosted events to commemorate King, an effort that began, Coleman said, when Irwin Altman, then the university’s vice president for academic affairs, picked Afesa Adams to be an associate vice president. Adams was a professor in family and consumer studies, now the college of social and behavioral science.

Adams, Coleman said, launched the university’s King events, bringing in such speakers as Ambassador Andrew Young and poet Maya Angelou. Adams also helped establish another campus tradition: the Days of Remembrance to commemorate the Holocaust.

Coleman credits Adams, Altman and their boss, then-U. President Chase Peterson, with fostering diversity at the university in the 1980s. “If there was pushback from the board of trustees or the board of regents, it didn’t filter down to the faculty level,” he said.

Coleman succeeded Adams, taking the title of associate vice president for diversity and faculty development from 1991 to 2000. Through several evolutions, the department is now known as the Office of Equity and Diversity.

Utah remains predominantly white. In 2016, whites, including Latinos, were 91.1 percent of Utah’s population of more than 3 million, and blacks constituted 1.4 percent.

Coles said she has seen a small increase in the number of students of color in her undergraduate classes. Where she once had one minority student in a class of 14 or 15, now she often has two. “There’s a big difference between having one student of color and two students of color in a class,” she said. “We’re getting there, but oh my gosh it’s slow.”

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Katharine Coles, a U. of U. English professor and former Utah poet laureate, is pictured in her Salt Lake City home Monday, April 2, 2018. Coles, at age 8, took part in a memorial march in Salt Lake City three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Warfield-Graham is doing his part to keep the spirit of activism alive. For the past couple of years, he has funded a scholarship at Weber State University that provides money to students engaged in social justice — and BSU members are among those given priority.

He also is working on a 50th-anniversary gathering for the BSU, to celebrate the group’s work in helping black students polish their voice and negotiation skills.

“You gotta bring logic, you gotta bring powerful persuasion. You’ve got to say what you need, and explain why you need it,” Warfield-Graham said. “Sometimes, you can have that victory.”

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