By Robbin Laird
In our interview with the esteemed journalist Ed Rabel, we discussed with him his dealings with Martin Luther King.
This is what he told Ed Timperlake and myself:
“Rabel described his coverage of the black movement in the 1960s as follows:
“I was hired by CBS News in 1966, and I was sent to the Atlanta Bureau, where my beat was the Civil Rights Movement. I covered the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but also those elements in the black community that wanted no part of the non-violence approach espoused by the SCLC, but wanted to try to confront White America, in other words, the Stokely Carmichael’s and the Rap Brown’s of the world.
“Martin Luther King, Jr. was obviously the fundamental principal character person in the struggle for civil rights. And he did that through the non-violent philosophy. Which was put forth by Gandhi, of course. And it was a moment of time – 1996-1968 –before I went off to cover the war in Vietnam, that we were able to be on an almost daily coverage of this fantastic movement.
“King’s dynamic and purposeful program to gain the rights of the black Americans in part ended in the passage of the Civil Rights Act signed by Lyndon Johnson, and the Voting Rights Act. Those are pieces of legislation that have been chiseled away at in recent years.
“But one of the most interesting and, obviously for Dr. King, the most awful part of his entire movement was in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968 when he was convinced that he should go to Memphis and lead the strike against the city by the sanitation workers. Most of them, of course, were black.
“And he didn’t want to do that. He was under attack in America at that time because of his anti-war Vietnam War stance. And also because the movement had been successful and had eliminated several aspects of segregation. He was really at a most critical point in his life and in the movement. And he was quite depressed when he went to Memphis, because of his lack of success in the realm of economics, and also with negative response to his anti-war movement.
“But, nonetheless he went to Memphis, and I was there in Memphis covering the protest. I shall never forget a scene in which Dr. King was in the parking lot of the Lorraine Motel, and before he was to lead a march on behalf of the sanitation workers, a federal marshal approached him in the parking lot of the motel with an injunction in his hand. And the injunction said that you cannot march in Memphis as you had planned.
“Dr. King looked at the injunction quite soberly, and he called over his lieutenant Andy Young, who would later become an ambassador to the United Nations under Jimmy Carter. “Come over here, Andy. Take a look at this injunction.” He called Jessie Jackson, who at that time was in bibbed overalls, I think he was only about 18 years old.
“And he said, “Come over here, Jessie.” And Andy Young, Jessie Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, who was King’s number two guy. Reverend Orange. All these iconic figures in the civil rights movement were all there surrounding King.
“And King, in addition to being a rather serious fellow, could be quite humorous, and so he looked at the injunction and all the civil rights leaders surrounding him looked at it very solemnly and he said, “Well, this injunction says we can’t march on Monday as we had planned. Well, you know, we don’t have time for such injunctions. We’re going to turn this injunction over to our attorneys. We just don’t have time for such injunctions. We’ve got some marching to do.”
“And everybody, including the federal marshal, broke into laughter over that. But King did go on to lead a march which ended in violence in downtown Memphis. He survived that march and pledged to lead another march, but he never got to do that, because of course he was assassinated by James Earl Ray.
“I had interviewed Dr. King just a few hours before he was gunned down. To this very day Dr. King has left a great legend for all of us to understand and live by.”
And in my forthcoming co-autobiography with Ken Maxwell, I discussed his influence as well:
But in the mid-1960s, the civil rights movement was in full swing. There were tensions throughout 1966-1968, and they erupted in a major riot in the summer of 1968. The Johnson Administration sponsored and passed various civil rights laws which themselves generated controversy.
Much of the work in social science courses at the university focused on race and social movements, and because the university was integrated, this meant that black and white students debated about developments in those classes. It was a fascinating period and one which saw much debate among students about what should be done or not to deal with issues being raised.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s appeals clearly had an effect on the campus. Ultimately, although thought today of as a Black Leader, at the time for many of the students – whether Black or White – he was an American leader calling for equality before the law. There were many radical leaders – White and Black – who were in favor of destroying American institutions but there was not support on campus for such a focus. Critical race theory was clearly being propagated at the time along with demands for equity not equality.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s involvement in Northeastern Ohio was identified in a January 15, 2018 article in The Cleveland Plain Dealer as follows:
“The civil rights leader came to Cleveland just a week after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for a “march to the ballot box,” in which he urged Clevelanders to vote in the next election.
“Then-Cleveland Mayor Ralph Locher branded him an extremist when King came to the city several times in 1967 to denounce vandalism and violence in the black community.
“Boycotts and attempts to improve conditions in Cleveland’s poor neighborhoods and improve relations between the police and the black community grew out of his visits to Northeast Ohio that year.
“In one of his most significant contributions to Northeast Ohio, King lead voter registration drives prior to the 1967 election. Clevelanders chose Carl B. Stokes to be the first black mayor of a major American city that year.
“King often spoke at churches, regularly drawing thousands of people. A speech at St. Paul Episcopal drew 14,000. His ties to the area remained his death.”
The Civil Rights movement provided an opportunity to debate many issues; but it was debate, not social intimidation like in the time of the Black Lives Matter riots in 2020.