“Dr. King did more for us in 13 years than the previous 350 years combined.”
April 4, 1968, was a day Oxford native Willie Burt, 71, will never forget.
“He was a role model to me and many others,” Burt said, referring to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I looked up to him. He was such an amazing man, and was taken from all of us way too soon. He wanted to enhance our lives. Us colored folks were often earning significantly lower wages, as well as being forced to work in more dangerous environments than the whites. It was not fair.”
King’s nonviolent approach to demonstrations was noteworthy. Even suffering from personal abuse at times, he remained peaceful in protests. His oratory skills were superb, making him an impressive, incredible leader and role model for African Americans everywhere.
“King had a way with words, and could express the things we were thinking and feeling,” Burt said. “Great things were beginning to happen for us. Blacks and whites were able to ride buses now as equals. Desegregation was chipping away slowly for us in the South. There was hope that equality would be a part of our future.”
Burt has lived in the Oxford area his entire life and attended schools here. He also recalls the arrival of James Meredith as a student at Ole Miss.
“Riots took place here when Meredith arrived,” he said. “It was something to see. Even the president of the United States got involved and sent military police and the National Guard to the Ole Miss campus.”
Burt was also greatly inspired by Meredith, who was active in the U.S. military. His military service inspired Burt to enlist in the Marines in 1964 and later in the National Guard. Both his father and uncle were veterans, and they all wanted to make a difference in the world.
“I grew up with a father who was a Marine, and after seeing the positive strides James Meredith was able to make in my community, I too wanted to make an impact and felt military service was the way for me to go,” he said.
In 1966, Meredith was shot and wounded in Memphis when he was on a solo march there for civil rights. Two years later, Burt was in his 20s when King was assassinated. These two events rattled him and his family.
“I can remember hearing about the shooting and sitting and waiting to hear if Martin Luther King was going to be OK,” he said. “When the news hit that King was dead, I was devastated. Marches began happening. Lots and lots of marches where hundreds and thousands of people gathered to protest and remember MLK. Blacks and whites alike were affected.”
Today, people still believe in making MLK’s dream come true. “I still think about King,” Burt said. “He helped to make our situation better for me and my family. Our lives have been altered – bettered – as a result of him.
“I believe that his fight for equality is still thought about by leaders today. There is a little piece of King in most people’s thoughts and actions. He was a powerful role model, and his words resonate today, just as they did then. Dr. King did more for us in 13 years than the previous 350 years combined.”