Where Were You the Day Martin Luther King Died?
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 17, 2002 Where were you and what were you doing when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.?
Asked these questions, some DoD personnel who are old enough to remember responded similarly and as if the day is branded in memory. They were also asked how King's death affected them and what their impressions are of his work to make America a better place for all Americans.
Four respondents were an assistant secretary of defense, an Army major general, the master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard and a retired high-ranking DoD civilian employee.
When King was assassinated, former enlisted man Charles S. Abell, now assistant secretary of defense for force management policy, had just graduated from Officer Candidate School and was wearing his shiny gold Army second lieutenant bars at his first assignment.
"I was on duty with the 2nd Battalion, 52nd Infantry, 1st Armored Division at Fort Hood, Texas, when I learned of the assassination," said Abell, who served two tours in Vietnam and returned home with two Bronze Star Medals for valor and a Purple Heart. "I was shocked that this could happen in America.
"My unit at Fort Hood was alerted, trained and deployed to Chicago to assist local authorities in quelling the riots that followed the assassination. It was an eye-opening experience for me to see U.S. troops deployed in U.S. cities, establishing order in a domestic environment.
"Dr. King is an inspiration to me and I believe most Americans," Abell said. "We are better for his life and his service. As with other American heroes who gave their lives too young, we will never know what other contributions Dr. King would have made."
Army Reserve Maj. Gen. B. Sue Dueitt, the Army's assistant deputy chief of staff for personnel (mobilization and reserve affairs), was a college English and business major at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg when King was killed.
"I vividly remember the newsreels of (King) on the motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn., when the assassin's shots rang out," Dueitt said. "I felt very sad that America had been plagued by a terrible series of assassinations including President Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy and then Dr. King -- all struck down in their prime. Even now, 34 years later, I am still touched by Dr. King's inspiring speech to his followers that he gave on the day before his assassination, when he had a death premonition."
Noting that King advocated Gandhi's principle of nonviolent persuasion to achieve social justice, Dueitt said she admired his convictions. As a minister, he helped organize and lead underprivileged and disenfranchised Americans to use passive resistance and nonviolent demonstrations to further the aims of black voter registration, desegregation, and better education and housing, she said.
The general said King's life teaches wonderful lessons about personal courage and the dignity of all human beings, regardless of their race, gender or socio-economic status. She noted King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his tireless, courageous efforts and successes in the civil rights movement, and she added, "That really says it all."
"I was horrified," said Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Vincent W. Patton III. "At the time I heard the news of Dr. King's assassination I was attending a Boy Scout meeting in Detroit." He was 13 years old.
Patton said he isn't sure exactly what time King died but was about 5:30 p.m. when he remembers seeing a woman crying as she walked into the Scout meeting room.
"She told us that Dr. King had been assassinated. The news really stunned me," Patton said. "I just couldn't believe it had happened -- just several weeks earlier Dr. King had been to Detroit. We were allowed out of school that day to see and listen to him speak at the Detroit convention center."
"Who would do something like this?" Patton remembered thinking. "As I looked around the room, I noticed the news had a dramatic effect on everyone else, including Mr. Thomas, my scoutmaster. He was in his mid-40s or so, a big guy, kind of imposing-looking. Seeing him cry probably started the triggered emotion on all of us -- this news was so bad that it made Mr. Thomas cry. It bothered us all."
Patton said King's words have become everlasting. He quoted King as saying: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."
"I've learned through his philosophy how having a loving kindness for people is the only way to deal with hate and adversity," Patton said. "His teachings, attitude and personal philosophy have been a tremendous influence on a large number of Americans, as well as people throughout the world."
When the news of King's assassination reached Belkis Leong- Hong, she was preparing for her last final exams as a student at Hunter College in New York City.
"Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination was a total shock to my system," said Leong-Hong, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans and resources in DoD's command, control, communications and intelligence office. "It was incomprehensible that someone would want to murder a man like Dr. King."
Only years later, after joining the work force and learning more about King and his work, did the youthful shock turn to deep sorrow, Leong-Hong said.
"Dr. King's life work was not just about civil rights for the African Americans, but for all of us Americans.
"I find myself pondering often: If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not march for all of our civil rights, if he did not call us to awaken and to fight for our rights, would we have done that on our own?" said Leong-Hong, now president of a small business, Knowledge Advantage Inc., in Gaithersburg, Md.
"Would an Asian-American immigrant young girl dare to dream and to aspire to the high reaches of government?," she asked. "Would we have been given the chance, the opportunity to succeed? The 'I Have a Dream' speech is a defining moment in our history, and one which will forever be a beacon for all Americans."