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‘We prescribed to nonviolence, because we knew if we turned to violence, we would get everyone in Mississippi killed.’

Kaitlin Hollister
Oxford Stories
klhollis@go.olemiss.edu

Roscoe Jones and London Webster

‘We prescribed to nonviolence, because we knew if we turned to violence, we would get everyone in Mississippi killed.’

Roscoe Jones, a Meridian native and Bloody Sunday marcher, now 70, was a young adult when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, but he remembers the moment he heard the tragic news. The follower of King was a college student on spring break when the assassination occurred. “We were in Chicago on our way to my aunt’s house when we heard about what happened,” he said. 

Jones said he remembers being angry. Although he says he wanted places like Chicago and Washington, D.C. to burn because of King’s death, Jones knew King wouldn’t have wanted that.

On the day of the assassination, Jones was walking down the Chicago streets when he witnessed a white man get jumped by an angry group of African American men. Soon after, Jones stepped in between them to intervene, telling the men who started the attack that he understood their anger, but violence wasn’t what King would have wanted.

Meridian native London Webster, 67, was living in uptown Washington, D.C. during the time King was assassinated. Webster was a high school student, and he believes he was in class when he heard the news. Until King’s assassination, he said most of the D.C. riots were downtown, but after the news broke, many citizens uptown feared the riots would reach other parts of the city. “Anyone was susceptible to harm,” he said. “After the riots started, we stayed inside to avoid them.”

Webster, who was young during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, said he didn’t follow King’s speeches, but he followed his message. “After the assassination, it moved me to be radical and not afraid of violence,” he said. He even began following the revolutionary socialist organization, the Black Panthers.

Both Jones and Webster agree that King was an eloquent orator with a unique ability to inspire people to do something. “No one has captivated such a large group of people as Dr. King has,” said Webster.

Jones was an active proponent of the Civil Rights Movement and president of the youth chapter of the NAACP during the Freedom Summer of 1964. He also served as co-chairman for the Freedom Summer Youth Convention in Meridian the same year. “People do not often realize that it was the young adults that were the boots on the ground,” he said. “It was the students who led the movement.”

Jones marched from Selma to Montgomery on what is now known as “Bloody Sunday,” in 1965 for the Voter’s Registration March. He said he and a group of young adults were at the church when they realized they had been left by other marchers. As they ran to catch up, they were met by a large crowd running towards the church yelling that they were being beaten. Jones said they ran back, but were met at the church by local and state law enforcement, who beat the marchers in the church and sprayed them with tear gas.

Jones worked with King on multiple other occasions, including King’s tour of Mississippi. He said one of King’s greatest fears was visiting Mississippi because it was more dangerous than anywhere else. “We prescribed to nonviolence because we knew if we turned to violence, we would get everyone in Mississippi killed,” Jones said.

IMG_3779
First Union Baptist Church where King gave his speech in Meridian, Mississippi.

Jones helped prepare the city of Meridian for King’s speeches. His job was to help ensure that both locations would be filled to capacity. King was set to speak at First Union Church first, then St. John Baptist Church. According to Jones, the event at First Union Church went smoothly, but on the night of the second speech, the city fire marshal evacuated the church saying it had become a safety issue.

Things in Mississippi were so dangerous, King left Meridian in the back of hearse, because at the time, it was the safest way out of the city. “No one is going to stop and check a hearse,” said Jones.

When asked about where the world might be if King had not been assassinated, Jones said he was unsure. He said he believes King was ready for death. “He didn’t want to speak in Memphis that night,” said Jones. He did not prepare for the speech and even tried to send someone in his place.

In his final speech known as “The Mountaintop Speech,” King spoke about death and his funeral. “He had death on his mind and knew it was upon him,” said Jones.

Although Jones said King had a plan for the future, King left behind a great legacy and plan in his book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community. “Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to be remembered as a drum major for justice,” said Jones.

Jones said King saw the movement headed in a direction he did not like. King wanted his life to be meaningful. He knew if he continued, it might not be, and he feared what the future would hold, adding, “I don’t know what would have happened if Dr. King had survived.”

What Jones does know is, “If we had the communication advantages young people now have, then we would have turned the whole state of Mississippi and the world upside down.”

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