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High school students march along Market Street in Wilmington to
attend a memorial service for Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination in April 1968. This
photo is one of hundreds taken by News Journal photographers whose
negatives were recently discovered in the newspaper’s archives.
were high school or college students, National Guard members and those
not yet born 50 years ago gathered at the University of Delaware on
April 4 to share memories, grief and tributes to the Rev. Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr.
The occasion was “A Day of Remembrance in Pictures and Words,” hosted by UD’s Department of Africana Studies in Trabant University Center Theatre.
Part of a nationwide network of memorial events held on the 50-year
anniversary of King’s assassination, the UD program also recalled the
unique nature of 1968 Wilmington.
That April, Delaware’s largest city experienced two days of unrest,
looting and vandalism—which historians note was short-lived and much
less severe than riots in many other cities—but Delaware National Guard
troops patrolled in Wilmington for the next nine months. It would be the
longest military occupation of a U.S. city since the Civil War.
Margaret Winslow, a curator at the Delaware Art Museum and an
instructor in Africana studies at UD who is teaching a class that is
conducting research into the events of 1968 in Delaware, welcomed the
audience to the “Day of Remembrance” event. She called the assassination
of Dr. King “one of the most significant and heartbreaking events of
the 20th century.”
Speakers who experienced that time shared similar thoughts.
As a teenager living in the Dunleith community just south of
Wilmington, “I was absolutely heartbroken on April 4, 1968,” said Norma
Gaines-Hanks, associate professor of human development and family
science at UD. “My spirit was sapped away from me that day. … I had no
idea it would still haunt me today.”
Gaines-Hanks spoke as part of a panel that also included UD alumni
Ron Whittington ’71, R.W. Buck Simpers ’73 and Leo Tammi ’69, all
students at the University in 1968, and photographers Fred Comegys and
Chuck McGowen, who worked for The (Wilmington) News Journal at the time.
Although Whittington stayed on campus during summer 1968 at his
parents’ insistence, he recalled visiting Wilmington with two friends
one Saturday and being chased by police as they walked along Market
Street. The three African American men then returned to Newark and were
chased by police there, said Whittington, who is now a retired UD
administrator and teaches an Honors class as an adjunct faculty member.
Tammi, a photography enthusiast then and now, also ventured from the
UD campus to Wilmington and captured images of the city and its people,
many going about their daily lives despite the tumultuous events of the
“I was just struck by the humanity on the streets,” said Tammi, who
was an early member of the activist Students for a Democratic Society
(SDS) chapter at UD. Whittington remembered Tammi and fellow SDS members
advising him and others as they worked to form the first Black Student
Union at the University in 1968.
Simpers was not only a UD student at the time but also a member of
the Delaware National Guard and, like other Guard members that year,
spent his weeks of summer duty stationed in Wilmington. As a white
teenager, he said, he had first been exposed to the realities of racism
in Delaware when he worked for an African American architect, an
experience he said “really opened my eyes” to injustice.
Posted throughout Wilmington at key commercial buildings, reservoirs
and other potential targets of vandalism, Simpers said he had the same
thoughts as most of his fellow National Guard troops: “Nobody wanted to
be there,” he said.
Whittington and Gaines-Hanks, both of whose families lived in
Wilmington, described the initial unrest there as much less widespread
and lethal than it was perceived at the time by mostly white
suburbanites and the state’s “law-and-order” governor. While racism,
poverty and inequality had persisted in Delaware, little had been done
to understand the frustration or improve the situation of African
Americans, they said.
“Don’t be upset by the protests,” Gaines-Hanks said, referring to
both 1968 and today’s social justice activism. “Be upset by why the
McGowen and Comegys talked about their work as photographers in 1968
and about the many photos believed to be lost whose negatives were only
recently discovered by The News Journal in its archives. Those images
will be the basis of an exhibit opening this summer at the Delaware Art
Museum, with research conducted by UD history graduate student Simone
Austin and with assistance from Winslow’s class.
The “Day of Remembrance” also featured poetry by Delaware poet
laureate Albert Mills, who read his “68 in My City,” and a performance
that gave the audience a look into the creative process of storyteller
TAHIRA and singer/songwriter Jea Street Jr. Street and TAHIRA are
collaborating on three pieces, commissioned by the Delaware Art Museum.
The event was sponsored by UD’s Partnership for Arts and Culture, with participation by the Delaware Art Museum and the state Division of the Arts.
About an hour into the event, the UD Carillon tolled across campus in
memory of Dr. King and his call to “let freedom ring.” The bells on
campus, and across the U.S., rang 39 times, once for each year of his
Article by Ann Manser; photo courtesy of The (Wilmington) News Journal
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