Jan. 14—Arlena Jackson was a young activist driving in Seattle when she heard the news on her car radio that the Rev. Martin Luther King had been assassinated.
She had to pull over.
She found him inspiring both as a courageous and driven civil rights leader and as a warm, personable man she had met years before when she was a college student in Philadelphia.
She felt deeply saddened at the great loss, yet she wasn’t shocked.
“It was not such a surprise,” recalled Jackson, 86, who is Black and now lives in Santa Fe. “He had been speaking in his sermons about the intensity of threats.”
It was April, 1968, exactly five years after King gave his monumental “I have a dream” speech to 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
In a soaring speech delivered like a fiery sermon, King, a Baptist minister and an activist, laid out a vision — a dream — for a better America, a better world, a better future in which racial equality was a given and bigotry was a fading memory.
A century before, the nation was torn apart in a civil war over Southern states’ adamance that they have the right to own people whose skin is darker.
As King stood before the statue of the man who signed the proclamation to abolish slavery, the country was embroiled in a different civil war, one that was being waged over the right of Black Americans to enjoy their full dignity as human beings.
King was the eloquent messenger, calling for the end of American apartheid. Although he preached nonviolence and sought to have those of differing ethnicities set aside their hostilities, he was still viewed as a threat.
J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI surveilled him. The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists plotted to silence him, permanently.
James Earl Ray, an escaped convict, would fire the fatal shots in Memphis.
Jackson said she didn’t go to the Washington rally where King spoke because she had suffered a neck injury and didn’t want to be in a big crowd. Many of her friends attended the gathering, which showed a new solidarity among Black Americans, reflecting how times were changing for civil rights.
“It was the event that announced it to the world,” Jackson said.
She had met King several times in the early years of his activism.
Jackson, who grew up in Chicago, moved in the late 1950s to Philadelphia, where she took Russian courses at the University of Pennsylvania with the goal of becoming a translator.
She got involved in local civil rights efforts. That included boycotting companies that wouldn’t hire Black truck drivers to deliver oil to heat homes and picketing outside a Woolworth store every weekend because it wouldn’t serve Black customers at its soda fountains.
Whenever King came to the Philadelphia area, he would have a Sunday dinner at the home of a pastor, Robert Smith. As a friend of the Smith family, Jackson attended several of those dinners.
Upon meeting King, she was struck by his presence.
“It was as if the space immediately around him was magnetized in some way,” Jackson said. “I remember always feeling this is no ordinary person. He was very special.”
At the same time, he was personable and welcoming, she said.
He agreed to have a local art student paint his portrait at the Smiths’ house. During one of the painting sessions, King mentioned a woman had attacked him at a book signing, cutting him with a small knife used for opening envelopes.
“He said, ‘Here, let me show you,’” Jackson said. Then he opened his shirt, revealing a scar stretching from his collar bone to his belly button, she said.
King didn’t press charges against the woman because she was mentally ill, Jackson said. The attack, though, was an early sign of the hazardous path he had chosen.
Jackson’s activism had its own share of danger.
After she married and moved to Seattle with her husband, she joined a group that worked to combat housing discrimination against minorities.
They would film the preferential treatment landlords would give to whites looking to rent dwellings versus Black applicants. She gave speeches at meetings and commented about the need for fair housing to TV reporters, making her a visible target, she said.
It led to someone setting off an explosive at the front of their house, blowing a large hole in the porch and obliterating the shrubs.
The City Council passed an “open housing” ordinance in 1968 — three weeks after King was assassinated — that barred housing discrimination against Black applicants.
Still, the region, which today is considered one of the most progressive in the country, remained high-risk for racial equity advocates.
In January 1969, two men shot and killed Seattle Urban League Director Edwin T. Pratt outside his home.
Leaders like King encouraged Black people to fight the good fight, albeit peacefully. It’s a message that resonated with Jackson, who describes how she always had a rebellious streak.
She was suspended twice while in elementary school.
In the fourth-grade, she refused to sing “Dixie,” the song that served as one of the Confederacy’s unofficial national anthem during the Civil War.
A couple of years later, it was for talking back to a “white racist principal” who scolded her for reserving a seat at a school assembly for Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator and civil rights activist who was invited as a guest, Jackson said. The principal said those seats were for school board members.
Jackson said she had won a research contest that awarded her the privilege to sit next to McLeod Bethune, so even though she was suspended, she didn’t leave school until after the assembly.
In an uncanny repeat of history, her granddaughter was suspended in a Santa Fe-area school in the early 2000s for refusing to sing “Dixie.”
That incident shows that racism hasn’t gone away, nor does it know boundaries, Jackson said. When she moved to Santa Fe in 2004 to be closer to her grandchildren, she encountered discrimination when buying her house, reminding her of the fair housing battles in Seattle.
“They made it very difficult for me,” Jackson said. “I prevailed.”
The efforts in some states to ban books that address systemic racism and erase Black history that makes certain whites uncomfortable is “intolerable,” and shows the work King started is far from finished, she said.
“Sometimes I feel there are mountains yet to climb,” Jackson said.