The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 50 years ago in Memphis on April 4, 1968, but it almost didn’t happen because he originally was to have spent that day touring North Carolina.
The civil rights leader had previously announced he would spend April 4 touring the state campaigning for Reginald Hawkins, a Charlotte dentist who was the first serious black candidate for governor in a North Carolina Democratic Party primary.
King had scheduled stops in Charlotte, Greensboro, Durham, Rocky Mount and Wilmington with Hawkins as well as other African-American candidates in what was part of a major effort to register black voters following passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
King canceled the North Carolina trip after he was told his efforts were needed to help striking sanitation workers in Memphis.
As elsewhere in America, the black community in 1968 was ready to explode. In North Carolina, most schools were still segregated, blacks could not move into most white neighborhoods without facing harassment or violence, public services in black neighborhoods were often inferior to those in white neighborhoods, and many jobs were not open to black people.
Paul Wellstone, a future U.S. senator but at the time a doctoral student at UNC Chapel Hill, conducted a study of black voter attitudes in Durham during that period. He found unemployment in the black area of Durham was at 18 percent compared to a national rate of 3.5 percent, with 85 percent of black Durham families living under poverty conditions.
Black residents in Durham, Wellstone wrote, “like ghetto residents in northern cities are frustrated, resentful and willing to resort to violence to achieve the social and political change which they hope will improve their lives.’’
As in the rest of the country, King’s murder tripped an explosion of pent-up anger in the black community, with fire bombings, arson, looting and sniper fire across the state.
Forty-eight North Carolina towns and cities were in “a state of crisis,’’ according to a report prepared for Gov. Dan Moore. In eight cities, the Highway Patrol was called in to help overwhelmed local police restore order. In six of those cities, 4,300 National Guard soldiers were dispatched — 1,300 in Raleigh, 1,000 in Greensboro, 800 in Wilmington, 600 in Wilson, 500 in Durham, and 100 in Goldsboro. (Nearly 4,000 additional guardsmen were put on alert at local armories.)
There were 1,791 arrests and 151 fires. Property damage was estimated at more than $1 million, or about $7 million in today’s dollars There were 61 people injured including 29 police, fire and other governmental employees, most of them minor.
Raleigh saw the worst rioting in its history, with several warehouses firebombed, automobiles overturned, storefront and car windows smashed, and tear gas used on demonstrators. Raleigh was under curfew for several days.
Gov. Moore, a moderate Democrat and a former judge, was very steady during the crisis, calling out law enforcement to restore order but refusing to demagogue the issue.
The racial unrest did not change the trajectory of the governor’s race, where Democratic Lt. Gov. Robert W. Scott, running as a law-and order-candidate, defeated Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Gardner, a sharp critic of the civil disturbances.
But it likely contributed to the conservative backlash in the presidential election.
During the 1964 presidential race, North Carolina had voted for Democratic President Lyndon Johnson over Republican Barry Goldwater by a margin of 56 to 44 percent.
Four years later, Republican Richard Nixon won the state with 39.5 percent, followed by Independent Party candidate George Wallace with 31.2 percent, and Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey with 29.2 percent.
Not only was it the first time North Carolina had gone Republican in a presidential race since the 1920s, but it was a harbinger of things to come. North Carolina has voted Republican in every presidential race since then except in 1976 and 2008, when Democrats Jimmy Carter and then Barack Obama carried the state.
The King riots were just the start. During Scott’s first six months in office in 1969, he would call out the National Guard nine times to deal with civil unrest.
That is something to keep in mind when we talk about how polarized we are today.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Barack Obama is the only Democrat to win a presidential race in North Carolina since 1964. Jimmy Carter also won, in 1976.
"The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion," by Jonathan Haidt, will be discussed at the Bridging the Divide monthly book club meeting to be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 4, at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. Rob Christensen will moderate. All are welcome.