Richard Harris was shopping with his wife when he heard the news. "There was a Sears & Roebuck on East Washington Avenue," he remembers. "It was a cold, rainy night. There was a white woman behind the counter. She said, 'I just don't know what we're going to do.'" Harris asked what she meant. She told him that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.
It was Thursday, April 4, 1968, the day an assassin's bullet killed King as he stood on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Like Dec. 7, 1941, Nov. 22, 1963, and Sept. 11, 2001, it's a date that's forever etched upon many people's minds. Like Harris, they can tell you where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.
"I was shocked and saddened, and I didn't go to sleep until 2 or 3 in the morning," recalls Harris, who turns 71 this month. "We had seen the news clip of his last sermon."
Delivered in Memphis the night before he was slain, King's "I've Been to the Mountaintop" address remains a pinnacle of eloquence. It was a peak from which the nation plunged into paroxysms of grief and violence.
The assassination did not kill King's dream of racial equality in America. Perhaps his greatest gift was the legacy he bequeathed to those who drew inspiration from his words. Some have dispensed their share of the inheritance throughout the 40 years that have passed since the news of his death stunned the world.
In Madison, reaction ranged from somber to bitter but stopped short of the violence that erupted in Washington, Chicago and other cities. On Friday, April 5, a massive rally was held on Bascom Hill, prefacing a peaceful march by an estimated 10,000 people that at one point stretched six blocks up State Street to the Capitol.
Public officials and religious leaders issued statements. The Rev. James C. Wright expressed his hope that "out of the death will come a new birth in which black and white and all creeds will transcend all barriers." A second, silent march took place on Sunday, and churches held special memorial services.
Steve Braunginn, now 53, was in his early teens, and living in Columbus, Ohio. "I came home from school," he remembers, "and turned on the television news, and there it was. I cried and I cried. To this day, I cry because we lost a shining star, but he was one who truly shined the brightest. He was a living miracle at a time when everybody in this country who was oppressed because of who they were needed somebody to stand up for them."
King's assassination "was like taking a hot, burning iron into my heart," says Braunginn, the former head of the local Urban League. "It hurt, and today it still hurts."
'Love or perish'
Martin Luther King Jr. made two public appearances in Madison. The first was on March 30, 1962, at the Wisconsin Union Theater.
John Patrick Hunter of The Capital Times reported that the "well-known southern Negro leader" told the audience that "integration is not some lavish dish that the government will pass out on a silver platter while the Negro merely furnishes the appetite." Rather, this goal would be achieved through nonviolent resistance, because in time "our capacity to suffer" would wear down white supremacists.
Returning to Madison as a Nobel Peace laureate on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 1965, King addressed about 3,000 people at the UW Stock Pavilion. King was now directing his nonviolent campaign against poverty as well as segregation.
"There is widespread economic deprivation of the Negro, both in North and South," King observed, according to Hunter's account. "The Negro in 1965 has more dignity but he is still...an impoverished alien in an affluent society. And the crisis is deepening - two-thirds of all Negros in the United States live in poverty and deprivation."
Later in his one-hour speech, King added: "I am still convinced that the practice and philosophy of nonviolence is the most effective way. Love or perish. It is my great hope that as the Negro plunges deeper into the quest for freedom, he will plunge deeper into the philosophy of nonviolence."
Melba Jesudason, now 76, was in the audience that night, and King's words had a profound impact on her life.
Jesudason and her husband, Victor, had come to the UW-Madison from India to pursue advanced degrees - his a doctorate in sociology, hers a master's in curriculum and instruction. The oldest of four siblings born and raised in southern India, she had already earned an undergraduate degree in biology and a master's in world history, and had taught high school biology. The couple lived in Eagle Heights, which she remembers as "a very friendly community," and had two children, both now in their 40s.
Jesudason's memories of King's appearance at the Stock Pavilion are vivid and detailed. "He mentioned Mahatma Gandhi," she says, "and he mentioned Satyagraha" - Gandhi's principle of passive resistance based on the force that is generated by truth. "We were touched by that."
But most of all, Jesudason was exhilarated by King's eloquence. "He was such a fluid speaker. I don't remember him referencing any notes." She had the sense that she was in the presence of a great man.
Braunginn, who was born in Philadelphia and moved around with his family before settling in Nashville, never had the opportunity to hear King speak in person. "I was very unfortunate," he says. "My father marched with him in Birmingham. He also was at the [1963 "I Have a Dream"] march on Washington. As a kid, I was maybe 8 years old, but I had interest."
Braunginn's voice leans into the word for emphasis. "It was exciting," he says of seeing his father leave for the marches. "I wanted to go. My father got threatening phone calls, but I just simply was not afraid. I wanted to be in the thick of it."
'His smile was so disarming'
Richard Harris, now executive director of Genesis Development Corp., was born in 1937 at the old Madison General Hospital. He grew up on Bram Street and attended Franklin Elementary and Central High. Both of his older brothers served in World War II, one on the European Front, the other in Asia. Yet when they returned to Madison after the war, Harris remembers, "they couldn't get jobs."
At that time, says Harris, blacks in Madison were limited to jobs like hospital orderlies and line workers at Oscar Mayer. "I don't remember any black police officers, any black teachers or any black professionals. Madison was extremely racist."
In 1955, Harris enrolled at the UW-Madison. But he struggled with grades, didn't meet his ROTC attendance requirements and "essentially flunked out." After a stint in the Army Reserves, he returned to the UW, graduating with a degree in social work in 1961.
Harris was hired by a Chicago nonprofit, working with South Side Chicago youth decades before the adjective "at-risk" had been coined. During his six years in Chicago, "I received reasonably fair and equal treatment, especially in the employment area." He finished a master's degree in social work. (He'd later go on to get a Ph.D.) And he saw King - twice.
The first time was at Soldier Field, where King gave a speech. "My wife and I went, and we had a chance to stand fairly close," Harris recalls. "I don't know how many people Soldier Field holds, but it was packed. I remember he waved. He spoke of his concern for people who were disenfranchised."
The other occasion was on the eve of King's 1966 march in Chicago's Marquette Park neighborhood. The setting was a church, the atmosphere tense. King told those assembled to avoid the march if they were too apprehensive. Harris decided against it, but remembers King's calm courage.
"He had a warm demeanor about him, and spoke in a deep voice," Harris says. "Every once in a while he would smile, and his smile was so disarming. He was a man who commanded respect. I hung on every word. He was eloquent and sincere. He didn't waste words. When I hear Barack Obama speak, I hear a lot of Dr. King in him."
The march - a nonviolent demonstration against housing discrimination - was met by thousands of white neighborhood residents hurling debris and spewing racist taunts. Someone in the mob threw a rock that hit King on the head, knocking him to his knees. Dazed, he was helped back to his feet and continued marching.
Returning to Madison in 1967, Harris found a city that had undergone a "180-degree change" in race relations. There were now black police officers, bus drivers, teachers and professionals.
Harris was hired to head the South Madison Neighborhood Center, which his mother had founded 20 years earlier. He has since chaired church and social-action committees and was instrumental in the push to establish the Rev. James C. Wright Middle School in south Madison.
"I still see the legacies of racism," says Harris, frustration and sadness in his voice. But he also sees reasons for hope. Four hundred years after Africans were brought to North America in chains, "we have a black man on the verge of nomination for president." And he thinks young people today are full of promise.
If he were to give them advice, it would be the same he learned from King: "Keep your eye on the prize and keep in prayer. Keep your hand in God's hand. You have to believe he will never let you down. You have to keep the faith."
'A woman in a sari'
Melba Jesudason likes to wear colorful saris. She makes for a striking figure in the one she wears as she sits in her living room in the Allied Drive neighborhood, talking about King's impact on her life. Its colors are as vibrant as her expressive face.
"When people see me in a sari," she notes, "they will sometimes try to come and convert me," on the assumption that she is Hindu. In fact, her family has been Christian for five generations. About 2% of India's population is Christian.
A simple crucifix hangs on the wall behind the couch, next to a photo of her late husband. Her last name, Jesudason, means "follower of Jesus" in Tamil - one of more than 20 "official" languages spoken in India.
The Jesudasons went back to India in 1972, after earning their degrees, but the family returned to Madison seven years later. Victor became a research analyst for the state Department of Health and Family Services. Melba spent most of her career as a reference librarian at the UW's College Library, distinguishing herself by her outreach efforts to students of color, student athletes and international students.
"In 1985, I told my boss we need to teach the athletes how to use the library," she recalls. "She said, who will teach the dumb jocks? I said I will teach them. This five-foot-two-inch woman in a sari." She smiles.
The athletes towered over her. She asked them to call her Mrs. J, and with that won them over. She published articles on her methods in academic journals, so librarians at other institutions could follow her example.
Toward the end of her career, Jesudason's efforts were recognized with such laurels as a lifetime achievement award from the Association of Indians in America, a Woman of Achievement Award from the Wisconsin Women of Color Network, and a Norman Bassett Award for Outstanding Achievement in Student Services from the UW.
All the programs she launched for students throughout her career - along with her role in local study circles on race and programs designed to help medical and nursing students grow more comfortable working with older patients from other cultures, her involvement in Allied Drive neighborhood issues, even the years she sang in the Mount Zion Baptist Church choir - are attributable, Jesudason says, to King's influence and legacy.
In 1994, Jesudason and her husband paid a visit to Ebenezer Baptist Church - where King was baptized and ordained, where he served as pastor and where his funeral was held - and to his nearby home in Atlanta. "We respected him so much," she says, her voice soft and reverent.
'King's spirit around me'
While still in Nashville, Steve Braunginn became active in the Urban League there. His future course had been set.
"Throughout my life, that is what I aspired to," he says. "I learned more about Gandhi, his teachings, Bayard Rustin and his work, and my modern-day hero, Nelson Mandela, who I think is a gift from the heavens - one of those rare beings who exceeds all the violence that is perpetrated on him."
A South African court convicted the anti-Apartheid leader on charges of conspiring to sabotage the government, and in 1964 sentenced him to life in prison. That same year, King won the Nobel Peace Prize. Four years later, Braunginn was crying in front of the television.
On Feb. 11, 1990, it happened again, when Braunginn watched Mandela walk out of Victor Verber Prison and step out a free man, destined for his own Nobel Peace Prize. "I was at home, and I was recording it," he says. "I wanted to make sure my children's children saw that. I just sat there, and tears rolled down from my eyes."
In 1998, Braunginn left his post as a respected UW-Madison administrator to assume leadership of the Urban League of Greater Madison.
"As Quakers," he says, in passing reference to his religion, "we wait for the answer to arrive. I was sitting in my car at the traffic signal in front of University Health Services and I just said out loud, I am going to be the next president of the Urban League. I truly was called to do that work."
It was demanding work - much harder, he says, than his job at the university. But Braunginn felt it was in keeping with King's example. "I thought about him many days as I worked there. What would he do? There were times when I was attacked politically, publicly, privately, and I had to respond in the same manner that was befitting of King's spirit around me."
Braunginn led the Urban League until 2004, when declining health forced him to step down. That year, the city of Madison honored him with its Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award.
A devoted reader of civil rights history, Braunginn has a keen appreciation of King's human qualities and flaws. He notes that King was thrust into a leadership role while still in his 20s - an age when lesser men might have been overwhelmed.
"He took it on virtually without question," Braunginn marvels. "That took a tremendous amount of courage at a time when lynching was still near its height." The Ku Klux Klan were still terrorizing some regions, often with impunity because judges and sheriffs in some communities "were the KKK without the hoods."
Braunginn, too, listened as King give his last speech, the rhetorical masterpiece proclaiming his visit to the mountaintop. The memory of it "chills me to the bone. He knew he was going to die, very soon." Yet he persisted.
"His legacy is deep in the hearts of many people who carry on his message and his work in the same spirit," says Braunginn. "I have aspired to live that way, and I feel that I have failed many times. But after all it is the journey of life, and if you open your eyes and learn from the failure, you are as human as he was."