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Chaplain "Outraged as to Why?" When King Was Killed

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 12, 1997 – When news of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination aired on Armed Forces Radio Network in Germany in April 1968, Leonard F. Stegman was "outraged as to why;" and questioned, "What prompted someone to do something like this?"

Stegman asked himself, "Where, Lord, are we going? What's happening in this world? Where is our country going? What are we fighting for?

"I felt helpless about what a person could do in such a situation," Stegman said during a telephone interview from his retirement home in San Antonio. In 1968, he was staff chaplain of the former U.S. Army Communications Zone, Europe, headquartered in Worms, Germany.

Reflecting on his feelings about King's assassination, the retired Catholic chaplain said, "I put my reaction in words at the time."

Four days after King's assassination on April 4, 1968, a solemn assemblage of people, many with tears in their eyes, gathered for a dramatic all-faith joint memorial service at the Taukkunen Barracks chapel in Worms. Stegman recalled opening the program with the theme, "Thoughts and Prayers."

"The tragedy of an assassin's bullet that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to his grave, has brought shock to the whole world," Stegman said in homage to the slain civil rights and human rights advocate. "Each one of us may say we have died a little with the death of Dr. King.

"It's a shock which must bring every American to his knees with a prayer to Almighty God," said Stegman. "Each one of us in our daily lives must conform to the principles upon which our country was built -- freedom and equal opportunity, mutual consideration of each other's rights. But it is also each one's duty to have patience while we work out the adverse growing pains which have long been our plight."

Stegman's Protestant counterpart, who was in Augsburg, Germany, in 1968, Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Douglass F. Hall, delivered a passionate and heartfelt eulogy. Hall, who participated in the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, and heard King deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech, said:

"As a symbol of brotherhood, he was the object of unrelenting attacks and vilification. His home was bombed, and his family saturated with the meanest kind of words. He was spat upon and mocked. He was struck and kicked. He was stabbed, almost fatally, by a deranged woman. He was cursed. He was frequently thrown into jail. Often his own people dismissed him as an Uncle Tom. He was called a 'fraud' who reaped success at the expense of others' labor. His life was threatened many times.

"Yet in all these things, he never struck back in violence; he never tossed a fire bomb or burned a building; he never cursed a person because he was white or scorned him because he was black; he never advocated or participated in a riot or robbery; he never killed or advocated killing. Why? is the question. Why?

"It seems as if assassins, crucifiers and killers, have no objections to dreamers who only dream. ... Maybe they killed Dr. King because he was a dreamer who worked to make his dream a reality."

Today, Stegman, now 80, said King was trying to put into practice what America is all about -- religion and faith in God and each other.

"If such things keep happening, it will bring our country down," said Stegman, who calls himself a roving priest without a parish who goes wherever he's needed. "We must equalize the hatred in man's heart to heal our country's wounds or our country can never be the country we want it to be."

He said he hopes those who follow King will continue searching for mutual respect and concern among all races and ethnic groups.

"The military services have done more than any single organization in the world toward equal opportunity and mutual respect and concern for all of America's society," Stegman noted.

He pointed to the integration of the armed forces during the Korean War as an example. "If it can be done in the military world that's based on a lot of authoritarianism, why can't it be done in a democratic world?" he asked.

Stegman said on Martin Luther King's birthday, the nation and the world aren't necessarily honoring Martin Luther King Jr. the man, but rather what he stood for.

"He was the instrument," the chaplain said.

In 1968, more than 2,000 Augsburg residents and several hundred from surrounding communities signed a list of condolences at Augsburg city hall. The opening statement on the signature lists stated, "The world is in grief about the death of a man whose humanitarian actions, well known far away from the border of his country, found recognition and regard."

People from as far away as Berlin, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf and Nuremberg, Germany, signed the list. Even a citizen of Weimar, a city in the then-East Germany, signed his name.

An old man wasn't satisfied to leave only his signature; he wrote on the list's inside cover, "Who is behind this?"

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Click photo for screen-resolution image"Each one of us may say we have died a little with the death of Dr. King," retired Army Chaplain (Col.) Leonard F. Stegman said during memorial services in Worms, Germany, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.  
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