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Remembering Martin Luther King: Baltimore reflects, 50 years after his death

Impactful Baltimoreans reflect on an impactful life and the moment it came to an end. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968 — and 50 years later, key figures in Baltimore's history reflect on that pivotal time.

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George L. Russell, Jr., 89, was the city solicitor in 1968, the first African American to hold the post of chief legal officer of Baltimore. He was in charge of devising how the city would hold the thousands of arrests during the riots, and after the city jail filled, many were confined to the Civic Center, now the Royal Farms Arena.

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Devon Wilford-Said, 64, has spent nearly half a century fighting a grassroots version of Dr. Martin Luther King’s battle for equal rights. She met King as a child, tried to quell anti-white violence during the riots after his assassination in 1968, and continues to carry on his tradition of reasoned activism as an advocate for the rights of those who live in public housing.

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Marc Steiner, 71, joined the civil rights movement at 13 after asking for his mother’s permission to join a picket line. He took part in Freedom Ride demonstrations, worked with Students for a Democratic Society and became one of the 3,000 activists who camped out on the National Mall in Washington as part of King’s Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. A longtime radio host, he heads a production company in Baltimore.

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Rev. Marcus Garvey Wood, 98, was born in Gloucester County, Va., where he was licensed as a preacher at 17. His ministry led him to Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pa., where he became a classmate of a young Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1948. Wood remembers King as a jokester, a leader and a gifted vocalist who sang hymns in the dorm late at night. He stayed in touch with King throughout the movement while serving as senior pastor at Providence Baptist Church, a position he held for more than 60 years.

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Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian of the American civil rights movement, talks about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in April, 1968, the riots that broke out in Baltimore and other cities after King's death, and where the movement went after that. This interview comes in advance of "King In The Wilderness," an HBO documentary film for which Branch, who lives in Baltimore, served as executive producer. The film airs on HBO for the first time on Monday, April 2 at 8 pm Eastern. Be sure to read The Sun's coverage of the 50th anniversary of King's death and the riots that ravaged sections of Baltimore in the week following the assassination. You can also listen to Branch on Dan Rodricks’ Roughly Speaking podcast.

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Jim Griffin, 86, a young father in the early 1960s, tried to “watch the civil rights movement from afar” – but once he was drawn in, became an effective leader on the local scene. As president of the Baltimore chapter of CORE, he took part in demonstrations for housing rights. He later served on the city school board and helped unionize hospital workers.

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Donte L. Hickman, 46, is the pastor of Southern Baptist Church. In the April 27, 2015, riots after the police custody death of Freddie Gray, the senior apartments the church was building burned, along with the adjacent Novak’s Market at 2054 E. Federal. That site also burned in the 1968 riots.

Diane Lashley, 68, is an administrative assistant at Southern Baptist Church and has lived in the area much of her life. She has seen it go from a stable community of families who could shop at the local businesses, many of which closed or changed hands after the 1968 riots

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Robert Birt, 65, grew up in the Latrobe Homes project in East Baltimore, where he learned early on to admire Martin Luther King as a man fighting for the freedom of African-Americans. The leader’s assassination “radicalized” his views about race and social justice, compelling him toward “what might be called the life of the mind.” He’s now a professor of philosophy at Bowie State University.

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Helena Hicks, 83, was a student at Morgan State when she led a 1955 sit-in at Read’s Drug Store, which did not serve blacks at its lunch counters. The protests led the chain to change its policy, years before the more famous lunch counter sit-ins in the South.

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Larry Young, 68, became an activist in grade school when he fought for better recreational facilities in Harlem Park. Inspired by King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, he became convinced the best way to bring about social change was peacefully and from within the system. A member of the Maryland House of Delegates for 23 years, he hosts a popular, long-running talk show on WOLB radio.

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Robert Moore, 73, was the first person arrested at a demonstration against segregated Gwynn Oak amusement park in 1962, was later arrested while protesting the Vietnam War, and has been a fierce advocate for the disenfranchised ever since. Skeptical toward King’s nonviolent stance, he supported Black Power causes, served as president of the local chapter of SNCC, helped unionize hospital workers and became president of SEIU local 1199E-DC.

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Irving Henry Webster Phillips, Jr., 72,was born into a photographic dynasty – all three members of which have the same name. His father, who was known as “Henry” chronicled African-American life for the Baltimore Afro-American, photographing such icons as the singer Billie Holiday. Young Irving began hanging around the paper in 1957 at age 11, setting headlines on an old-fashioned Ludlow Typogragh. He continued working at the Afro until he was drafted into the Vietnam War in 1965, where he served for two years as a radio operator and teletypist. He returned to the Afro in 1967, this time as a photographer, where his father was his first and best teacher. “He trained me so well,” Phillips said. “He taught me how to develop habits mentally so that when something happened, I didn’t have to think about it. I could just react.” In 1969, Phillips became the Baltimore Sun’s first African-American photographer and spent the next 24 years capturing images of everyone from the singer Ray Charles to civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy to former Baltimore Orioles right fielder Reggie Jackson. Phillips, Jr. later started taking his son along during weekend assignments; I.H. Webster Phillips III now operates his own photography business. In 2015, a monthlong exhibit of 30 photographs by all three generations of Phillips photographers was held at City Hall.

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In many ways, Walter McCardell Jr., 92, grew up with The Baltimore Sun. He began his association as a paper boy (his route was in Homeland) and at age 18 took a job in the paper’s commercial art department, photographing everything from whiskey bottles to shoes. World War II intervened; McCardell was drafted into the U.S. Army and spent two years as a military photographer. After he was discharged, McCardell made the switch to shooting news assignments. During the next 44 years, he worked for the two Sun papers while raising his large family; he, his wife, Sarah and their 10 children lived for many years on Guilford Avenue in Charles Village. During McCardell’s long career, his assignments included such seminal moments in American history as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream speech,” the Vietnam War protests and the funeral of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. “I was in Patterson Park when Lyndon Johnson’s helicopter landed there,” McCardell once recalled. This was in the 1960s when anti-war activism was at its height. “I was six feet from the president when someone threw an egg and hit me right in the eyeglasses.”

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Elizabeth Nix is a University of Baltimore historian who created an archive of oral histories and other material about the 1968 riots in Baltimore. She discusses the legacy that the riots left on the city, and how government policy and real estate practices created segregated neighborhoods that persist today. She also remembers her own childhood experience when busing was used to integrate schools, and how she thought – mistakenly, as it turned out – her generation would be the one separated by race.She also remembers her own childhood experience when busing was used to integrate schools, and how she thought – mistakenly, as it turned out – her generation would be the last one separated by race.

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