Hearing the Call of Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 17, 2024

Reflections on the Actions, Outrage and Heartbreak of 1968

Every January, when we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., it is a time to honor his legacy and recognize the work we still have to do in the U.S. to make this a country where a person is recognized for their character and not for the color of their skin.

In 1968, after his assassination, there was a sadness in the country we hadn’t felt since the assassination of President John. F. Kennedy. A group of us in Sacramento felt a need to do something to honor his call to action. We formed a group called Understanding Each Other (UEO). As we looked around, we saw that there were few African Americans in positions besides janitors and other low-income jobs. We decided to see what we could do in two areas – first, to support the hiring of an African American to be a checker in a food market and the other to be a manager or assistant manager in a hotel. We set up meetings with business owners, asking the question, “If you had a Black person qualified for an open position, would you consider hiring them?”

The response from the owner of the food market was negative and racist. He was an immigrant, but he prided himself on having worked his way up through hard work. He wasn’t going to give any job to “those people.” We also discovered he was a slumlord in the section of town mostly occupied by African-Americans.

During our meetings, as we were discussing this, one of the members suggested filling up the carts and jamming the aisles as a protest. We reminded this person that our organization was based on doing only legal action.

At the same time, we approached the manager of the Senator Hotel across the street from the Capitol. We were able to get the support of legislators who frequented the hotel, and they joined our picket line and put pressure on the hotel owners.

In June of that same year, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. As we were walking the picket line outside the Senator Hotel, someone threw a firecracker down to where we were walking, and at that moment, we were afraid it was gunfire. Everyone was very tense.

During that time, I was teaching 6th grade. After studying Roman history, my class was ready to perform “Children of the Gracchi” about a reforming family in ancient Rome in which two of their sons were assassinated. Because of the assassination of Robert Kennedy, we had to postpone the performance for a week. The similarity of the Gracchi and Kennedy families made the play even more poignant.

The lawyer for the Hotel flew from New York and negotiated with our team. They were willing to consider hiring a black assistant manager and went through the list of applicants and hired one. We considered that a victory.

On the other hand, we remained very frustrated with the grocery owner, and we wanted to let customers know what was happening. We decided to have a party to raise enough money to take out a full-page announcement in the Sacramento Bee. One of the UEO members was tending the bar when law enforcement came in, arrested the person serving and closed down the party. That was the end of our organization because without additional funds we couldn’t continue.

Later that year during the sheriff’s race, we recognized that the person who was a member of our group was part of the sheriff’s department. He had been giving our plans to the sheriff’s office, and he was the one suggesting we do illegal activities.

We ended UEO, feeling that we had at least made an impact in one area. It is a picture of our changing times. In a small way, we felt we helped continue the legacy of peaceful protests that Rev. King believed in.