April 1968: Carolina Reacts to the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A Daily Tar Heel headline reading "King Killed" in large letters

Headline from the Daily Tar Heel, 5 April 1968

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 – 50 years ago today – the reactions of UNC students were emblematic of the complex racial landscape at Carolina. Below is a timeline of events on campus in the week following the assassination.


April 4, 1968 

In an oral history conducted in 2015, alumnus John Sellars remembered the reaction on campus when students learned of Martin Luther King’s assassination: 

Senior yearbook portrait of John Sellars

John Sellars, from the 1971 Yackety Yack yearbook

The night that Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, I was in Hinton James, in my room, studying for class the next day. And all of a sudden I hear people running up and down the hallways, on the balconies, cheering. And so, I go outside to see what’s going on. And somebody says that Martin Luther King, Jr., just got assassinated. And it hit me that the reason for the cheering was because Martin Luther King, Jr., just got assassinated. Again, it gives you an idea of what the mood, what the attitude, what the social and racial structure was at UNC. Again, we’re talking about 1968.


April 5, 1968 

Approximately 60 African American students and local clergy held a memorial service on Polk Place followed by a meeting in Gerrard Hall. Speaking at the meeting, Black Student Movement President Preston Dobbins said, “Martin Luther King’s assassination is the very last time that a black man is going to be killed in this country without violent reaction” (Daily Tar Heel, 6 April 1968).

The Daily Tar Heel reported that approximately 30-40 black students, including Dobbins, walked down Franklin Street and through campus. They purchased several Confederate flags at a Franklin Street store and burned one on the sidewalk and the rest in front of the Kappa Alpha fraternity house.

After learning of violent protests around the country (including in Raleigh, where police used tear gas on student marchers), the Chapel Hill Police enact a voluntary curfew of 8:00pm, asking businesses to close early and suspending alcohol sales. (Daily Tar Heel, 7 April 1968)


People lining the sidewalk on Franklin Street. One holds a sign reading "Brotherhood and Human Dignity." Caption reads "Mourners Line Franklin Street."

From the Daily Tar Heel, 7 April 1968.

April 6, 1968 

Approximately 200 students and local residents line Franklin Street in a silent vigil honoring Dr. King (Daily Tar Heel, 7 April 1968).

 

 

 

 

 


From the Hugh Morton Photographic Collection, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archive.

 April 7, 1968 

Early in the morning, the Confederate Monument (“Silent Sam”) is spray painted (Daily Tar Heel, 10 April 1968).

Approximately 600 students march from Y Court to the First Baptist Church to pay tribute to Dr. King. Chancellor Sitterson and President Friday are part of the group (Daily Tar Heel, 9 April 1968).


First page of the program for an April 8, 1968 memorial service for Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial service program. From the Records of the Office of the Chancellor: J. Carlyle Sitterson (#40022), University Archives. Click the image above to read the full program.

April 8, 1968 

Approximately 2,000 people attended a memorial in honor of Dr. King at Memorial Hall (Daily Tar Heel, 10 April 1968).

 Some students volunteer to clean the Confederate Monument, which was spray painted over the weekend. During the clean-up, two small Confederate flags are placed on the statue, but were removed after an administrator asked them to be taken down (Daily Tar Heel, 9 April 1968).


April 9, 1968 

African American students and approximately 90% of UNC’s African American non-academic workers staged a one-day walkout. Their absence forced a cut in many services across campus, with several dining halls having to close. The boycott was encouraged by Preston Dobbins and BSM to give people time to mourn and show respect to Dr. King. Chancellor Sitterson announced that employees could take a half-day off if they chose (Daily Tar Heel, 10 April 1968).

A letter to the editor in the Daily Tar Heel criticizes King for taking breaking the law and inspiring violent protests. The author says that King’s assassination proves that “they who live by violence, die by it” (Daily Tar Heel, 9 April 1968) 


April 10, 1968 

Daily Tar Heel editorial criticizes the hypocrisy of the white moderates who attend the memorial services but do nothing to support civil rights and social justice for African Americans. On the same page, a letter to the editor criticizes the people who vandalized the Confederate monument, comparing them to King’s assassin (Daily Tar Heel, 10 April 1968). 

 

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