April 3rd, 2008
06:10 PM ET

The day MLK was killed, and my dad's shotgun

Editor's note: Randy Jones is now a commercial real estate agent living in Southaven, Mississippi, and father of 360 producer Kay Jones. In 1968, he was a senior at Whitehaven High School in Memphis.

This was my senior year in high school and we were all looking forward to graduation.  I had gone with a friend to watch him play a few holes of golf at a local golf course.  We were unaware of the shooting at the time. 

white Mustang
James Earl Ray paid $2,000 cash for a white Mustang, similar to this one, the seller told the FBI.

When I got home, a Shelby County Sheriff's car pulled into our driveway behind me.  Here's why: I was a white male with brownish hair wearing black-rimmed glasses driving a light-colored Ford Mustang.  That was the description law enforcement officers were given of the suspect in the shooting. 

As I got out of the car, the officers told me to open the trunk.  This was my dad's car.  My dad, also a Sheriff's deputy, kept a sawed-off shotgun in the trunk.  I was not aware that it was in there.  Imagine my surprise when I opened the trunk.... 

The deputies then started to question me about the shotgun.  About that time my mother came out of the carport door and asked what was going on.  The deputies recognized her and told her that they were looking for whoever shot Martin Luther King Jr.  She assured them that it was not her son.  They agreed and left. 

Mom then told me what had happened and said Dad wanted all of the kids in the house because of it was going to be unsafe to be on the streets.  My younger brother was at a friend's house, so Mom sent me to get him.  I did and we stayed in the house watching the television for the rest of the evening. 

For the first time in my life, there were curfews imposed by someone other than my parents and violating them meant serious consequences.  Schools were cancelled for the next day, which was Friday April 5th. 

Rumors were rampant.  One that sticks out in my mind was that there was a large group of blacks marching down Highway 51 toward Whitehaven, where we lived, to start fires and beat whites.  That rumor, fortunately, was just that.  A rumor. 

One thing that was for real was the National Guard tanks and armored personnel carriers patrolling the streets of Memphis.  I can remember as if it were yesterday: troops and National Guard vehicles stationed at the intersection of Park and Airways.  We were used to seeing these sights on the evening news but they were located in South Vietnam, not Memphis. 

As an 18-year-old high school senior, I was beginning to think that the world was soon going to come to an end.  As teenagers of the sixties, we experienced events that no generation before had ever seen and hopefully no generation to come will ever have to experience:

As a 13-year-old, I struggled to understand why a church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed, killing four little girls.  I watched as Walter Cronkite emotionally announced that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and listened to news reports that Medgar Evers, a civil rights leader in Mississippi, had been shot and killed. 

As a 14-year-old, I watched as the evening news announced that three civil rights workers' bodies had been found buried in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, MS. 

At 15, I didn't know about the man they called Malcolm X until he was shot to death. 

As a 16-year-old, I watched the broadcast of the sniper shooting of James Meredith near Hernando, Mississippi, during his solitary "March Against Fear" from Memphis to Jackson.  Just a few miles of where I lived n Whitehaven. Meredith had already made civil rights history by winning a federal court ruling that he had been barred from University of Mississippi soley because of his race. Then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy sent troops to protect him from lynching threats, and Meredith later graduated and wrote a book about his experiences, "Three Years In Mississippi."

Fortunately, Meredith survived the shooting. 

When I was 18, two more were added to decade's assassination list.  First, Martin Luther King Jr. and then Robert F. Kennedy. 

I had thought when I became a teenager that these would be fun years.  What was I thinking? 

As these events took their place in history, I didn't realize the impact they had on my life until later as an adult. 

They made me realize that I had racism in me.  I grew up in a city where there were 4 restrooms and 2 water fountains in most stores. In those days, there was no such thing as the American Disabilities Act so you can figure out that the number of restrooms and water fountains was due to racial separation. 

I also remember when I rode a city bus, there was a sign in the middle of the bus that stated Colored, the term used back then, must sit in the back of the bus. 

I didn't attend a school that had black students enrolled until I was a freshman at Whitehaven.  Memphis and Shelby County had two athletic divisions each.  One for white schools and one for black schools. 

All of these things, and even more that I haven't mentioned, were contributing factors in causing not only me but a lot of others to believe that, 1. Blacks were not equal to whites and 2. Blacks were not deserving of what whites had.  

It's a shame that it took riots, shootings, murders and marches to wake me up. 

I hope that this is not taken in the wrong way.  Thanks. 

– Randy Jones

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soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Priya

    Thank you for sharing your account. It is always hard to imagine life in those times and the perspective of people back then – it often appears unreal. By sharing your story you alos got a few more people to come out with theirs. I appreciate that too. And I also appreciate your honesty in recounting your perspectives at that time.

    April 7, 2008 at 9:29 pm |
  2. KC, Texas

    I was only 4 when Dr. King was assassinated.

    In my adult life I have listened to and read his speeches. He was indeed a man that truly had a vision. But his visions are for all of us when racism rears its ugly head.

    "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
    "Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring—when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

    MLK August 28, 1963

    Amen, Dr. King.

    April 4, 2008 at 12:53 pm |
  3. Arthur

    One thought for discussion. We are all shaped by our observations. From our observations, we sometimes prejudge others based on those observations, and by speaking, sometimes we express bigoted views of one another. Racists are those of us who use our powers and our ability to shape policy, laws, and impose bigoted view on others. Racism in America is the work of those who abuse the privilege of power, not those who are seeking dialogue with others. Thanks for sharing photos of your life. It is through this dialogue that we each become better people, and become better parents and leaders.

    April 4, 2008 at 12:02 pm |
  4. Randy

    EJ. My younger brother totalled the Mustang in a wreck about 3 years later. To all of you, thank you for understanding and for the kind words. Randy

    April 4, 2008 at 11:50 am |
  5. Arthur

    I was seven years old when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. My father was a professor and University Dean, and he and my mother did everything they could to keep me open to accepting people who were not like me. He saw the injustices that existed in life, a segregated community of blacks and whites. That day changed me forever. I could see the worry in my dad's eyes. The strain in my mommy's face. But with that experience came the hope that things would improve, that dialogue would begin.

    The local schools became desegregated by law, and I met new students. I grew to love some of them, and some of them grew to love me. But there was always that sense of anxiety–that feeling that something could go wrong.

    I finished college, married, divorced, and I continue to struggle with life's challenges. But I look back to April 4, 1968, and I believe that Dr. King's death brought about the need to begin to accept, embrace, and trust others as we embark on this journey called life. My daughter is a wonderful human being, and I pray that her world will be better than mine. I thank you for sharing your life with me. I am glad that we can have this dialogue.

    April 4, 2008 at 11:33 am |
  6. Jacqui Chan

    No, this story was not perceived as racist, by me anyway. Being a bit younger, it is very interesting to hear from someone who grew up in Memphis during the 60's, especially being that you are white. It is not your fault that you had racist feelings growing up. It is the fault of the adults (not necessarily your parents) but teachers and society in general as well as the government and media of the time. All that you can do is acknowledge that you had these thoughts, try to change them and most importantly start a dialogue about it like you are now doing.

    April 4, 2008 at 5:20 am |
  7. EJ - Ohio

    "When I got home, a Shelby County Sheriff’s car pulled into our driveway behind me. Here’s why: I was a white male with brownish hair wearing black-rimmed glasses driving a light-colored Ford Mustang. That was the description law enforcement officers were given of the suspect in the shooting. "

    Does your family still have the mustang? Very interesting story.

    April 4, 2008 at 12:35 am |
  8. Andy

    I vividly recall the violent year of 1968 and sadly remember the passing of two giants – Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King. Compounding the problem is the shallowness of some of their current day counterparts – George
    Bush and the Rev. Wright.

    April 3, 2008 at 11:40 pm |
  9. Mary Schwartz

    The CNN special was fantastic, a history lesson for us, the younger generation. America has a fretful past when it comes to race and I am so happy that our generation is smarter and more accepting of one another. I think Dr. King's dream will truly come to pass soon.

    April 3, 2008 at 11:21 pm |
  10. JR Atlanta

    I am so greatful to Dr. King for all that he accomplish, also for sacrificing his life for us. I will never forget that day, I was so upset when he got shot, I could not sleep.
    It is so sad that 40 years later we are still dealing with race, it took Senator Barack Obama to have the courage to speak out about race.
    Instead of people applauding him , they refuse to accept the truth. I pray one day they will face the truth , and join in with Senator Obama to make this world a better place.

    April 3, 2008 at 10:52 pm |
  11. Helen Woolridge Williams

    I also look back on the day Dr,King was killed and I was a little girl and had been send on by my third grade teacher and told to go home because something very bad had happen,so I told my teacher that my Mom and Dad was at work that after school we go to my greataunt down the street from the school so it was maybe 10 of us that would go there because my aunt ran a daycare so as I and the other kids was walking down the road you could see and hear people crying in the streets.When we got to my Aunt's she also was in tears so by that time I was in tears but didn't know why I was crying,so I asked my aunt what was wrong she told us that Dr.King had been killed and that it has put black people back to where we began.And at that time being a kid really didn't mean anything at that time,but as I got older I felt what she and another went though at that time.And since that time I have always tried to live my life the way Mr.King had.

    April 3, 2008 at 10:22 pm |
  12. Annie Kate


    Your account was really good – you touched on a lot of the same things I remember. The decade had such promise and then turned so sour.

    One thing I remember in addition is that Robert Kennedy campaigning for President was at a rally and preparing to speak when the news that Dr. King was relayed to him. Rather than canceling his speech he went to the podium and quietly announced the death of Rev. King. And in that same quiet voice he said he could understand how many would be angry, as well as hurt; that he understood that as he had lost his brother to an assassin's bullet. But that rioting would not solve anything and it would not be what Dr. King wanted. The crowd was so quiet as he spoke and in the next few days as riots broke out and parts of cities burned, this city where Kennedy spoke those quiet words of understanding and compassion did not riot. Two months later another man with a gun killed Robert Kennedy.

    For a time that had so much promise when the decade started all I remember of it now is the sadness and anger.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    April 3, 2008 at 10:05 pm |
  13. molly

    I also remember – I was living just outside of Washington, DC. – I was in the 9th grade. They had to close our school due to fighting with blacks/whites – it really was a very bad time. The day before the shooting, we all got along – the next day everything changed and it was a couple of years before we all felt comfortable again. We also had curfews in our area as riots were all over the DC area.
    It was a very sad time to all America. MLK Was a great man, may God Bless Him and America.

    April 3, 2008 at 9:27 pm |
  14. Patricia

    I was 12 years old when my grandmother ran outside yelling that Martin Luther King was shot and killed and she told myself and my brothers and sisters to come in the house and I remember we were all sitting around the tv crying and she told us about how she marched with him, I will never forget because the black panthers came to town and a riot broke out I will never forget.

    April 3, 2008 at 8:38 pm |
  15. Cindy

    Thanks for telling us your recollections of the past and your story of being looked at as a suspect for the King murder. This all was WAY before my time so I like hearing these stories from people who actually lived through these rough times.

    Cynthia, Covington, Ga.

    April 3, 2008 at 6:30 pm |