Wyoming and Martin Luther King

On April 5, 1968, I was a proctor in McIntyre Hall on the University of Wyoming campus. I remember walking through the adjacent Washakie Center and the deep sadness I felt when I heard that Dr. Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis.

The previous night, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who had just entered the Democratic presidential primary as a Vietnam War opponent, had to break the news of Dr. King’s death to the crowd assembled for his rally in Indianapolis. “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago,” Kennedy told them, “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

Shortly after the assassination, I received greetings from my Cheyenne draft board to report to Denver on June 5 for a draft physical. I was a first-year law student at UW; college deferments for graduate students had been eliminated a few weeks earlier. So I went to Denver and breakfasted on French toast at the Oxford Hotel that morning along with many other young men. A bus took us to a nearby federal building where we entered an assembly-line of tests and observations. My extreme near-sightedness allowed me to leave the physical after the eye exam.

So I got into my ’62 Chevy Bel-Aire—three speeds on the column—and headed for Houston, where I had a summer vacation-relief job waiting for me at the United Press International bureau. I stopped overnight at an Amarillo motel, and the next morning flipped on the car radio and heard that Robert Kennedy had himself been assassinated in Los Angeles.

I had been a button-wearing supporter of Sen. John F. Kennedy in high school during the 1960 presidential campaign and attended his speech in UW’s Memorial Fieldhouse in late September 1963, just days after my freshman year began. His assassination only two months later was devastating. And now, in ’68, we had another horrible tragedy to suffer through.

Late that year I was picked to be editor of the Branding Iron, UW’s student newspaper, when spring semester began. I attended—after writing an editorial urging all students to attend—a series of evening lectures that spring on Black history, literature, culture and anthropology, learning in some depth for the first time about racism and the pervasive inequality and anguish which afflicted Black people in America.

The following semester brought the racism question front and center at UW. At noon on Friday, Oct. 17, 1969, I sat at the UW President’s conference table in Old Main, hearing the reports from 14 African American football players who had just been booted from the nation’s 12th ranked team for the season a couple hours earlier. They had been protesting the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tenet that Black boys of 12 years old could not proceed into the ministry like White boys could (a tenet eliminated in 1978 after a revelation from God, according to Church leaders). The LDS church owned Brigham Young University, Wyoming’s opponent on the football field the next day. The Black Student Alliance had urged people “of good will“ to wear arm bands and protest before the game. 

In about 2014 or so, I began writing some “fact-papers“ about the events of the 60s, primarily for my own reference. As part of that, I set about trying to locate and communicate with all of the living Black 14 players. I accomplished this, and my papers evolved into a book, Wyoming in Mid-Century: Prejudice, Protest and The Black 14, which included a description of how Wyoming news editors and leaders reacted to the dismissal of the players.

Then I wondered how that reaction compared to how those editors and leaders had responded to the King assassination a year and a half earlier. That research led to a wyohistory.org article with quotes from editors around the state and from Black leaders of the time. 

Recently, I found some additional reactions of interest at UW’s Coe Library.

One of them, to my surprise, was written by a Laramie High School student, Terry Turpen, and appeared on the Teen-Agers Page of the Laramie Boomerang on April 18, 1968.

“Dr. King was peaceful,” Turpen wrote. “He never stopped telling his followers not to answer violence with violence. . . . [He] wanted peace for all people black and white everywhere as his ’I’ve got a dream’ speech proves.” As to post-assassination riots, which many Wyoming editors had focused on, the column reminded readers that it was law enforcement who had attacked peaceful voting rights marchers at Selma, Alabama, on a spring day three years earlier. 

An editorial appearing in Lander’s Wyoming State Journal on April 1st, only three days before King’s killing, blasted him for being “unable to control the demonstrations he stages.” This was in response to some violence that had broken out in Memphis during the long garbage workers’ strike. “The Black Power leaders have taken over the Civil Rights movement,” the editor said.

After Robert Kennedy’s murder, a Journal editorial on June 10th said: “This tragedy, coming so close after the assassinations of his brother ... and Martin Luther King, must awaken America to the moral decay of our country.

“‘Ban Guns’ is the cry of conscience-stricken Americans .... Better their cry should be, ’Enforce the Law’. ... [America must become] a land where differences in beliefs are again settled at the ballot box and not by violence.”

Phil White is an attorney and journalist in Laramie, Wyoming.

Read 1968: Wyoming Reacts to the King Assassination