WASHINGTON — It has been 50 years since civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, but Deacon Timothy E. Tilghman, his sister and his cousin, still remember the enormous sense of loss they felt when they received that news April 4, 1968.
As the 50th anniversary of Rev. King’s murder approaches, these three family members also recalled the turmoil, bewilderment and burning buildings they witnessed as rioting stormed through Washington and other U.S. cities in the days that followed.
The deacon, who is on the staff of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Southeast Washington, was 15 and said the grief he experienced was akin to a close family member being violently murdered, even though his family’s association with Rev. King was from afar.
He wasn’t alone in his sorrow.
Deacon Tilghman was at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic School when he heard about the assassination. As he walked on the school’s playground he watched the nuns and his fellow students, most of them young black Catholics like himself, cry as they absorbed the blow.
“There was a sense of despair, there was a great sense of loss,” he told Catholic News Service.
By the 1960s, Deacon Tilghman and his family had been Catholic for several generations and had a long connection to the Josephites, a religious community known for its help of the newly freed slaves in America following the U.S. Civil War.
Even though Rev. King was a Baptist minister, he transcended religious identification for the deacon, his parents, his 12 brothers and sisters, his cousins and his fellow black Catholics who saw the civil rights leader as an inspirational crusader for justice and peace.
The family closely watched Rev. King’s rise to national prominence and applauded his efforts in the civil rights movement.
As black Americans, they were motivated to become involved in the movement themselves, along with the leaders of their church.
On Aug. 28, 1963, the deacon’s sister, Mary Tilghman Shearad, went to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with their father, Cyprian Olave Tilghman, and was thrilled to witness Rev. King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech.
Shearad was horrified when she heard the news April 4, 1968, that Rev. King had been gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, and she sensed tension from people all around her in Washington that day.
“There was no calmness in the city,” she told CNS. “You could just feel things brewing.”
The next day, while she was working at American Security Bank in downtown Washington, the riots began.
“The city just exploded,” Shearad said. “You could look out the window, see fires, you could see cars being trampled. It was terrifying.”
She was at the corner of 14th and I streets in Washington’s Northwest section and witnessed a men’s clothing store explode. “The glass blew out and I just started running.”
Shearad and Tilghman’s cousin, Sahon Palmer, was a 22-year-old student at Howard University and attending classes when the riots broke out and she recalls watching the city descend into pandemonium.
“I was so afraid,” Palmer said. “First, someone had just killed Dr. King and I was heartbroken over that, and all of that chaos, burning buildings, noise and sirens and I was trying to get home from school. My mother was having a fit.”
Known as the Holy Week Uprising (because it occurred during the week between Palm Sunday and Easter), the rampage left 39 dead, about 2,600 injured and resulted in an estimated $65 million in property damage in dozens of U.S. cities.
The riots came while the Tilghman family was still grieving the loss of Rev. King, but they knew they wanted to do something, anything, to help, Deacon Tilghman said.
So, he and one of his brothers mobilized with their father, traveled through the rioting streets of Washington, and delivered food to the people impacted by the chaos, confusion and destruction.
Though witnessing the riots was frightening, Deacon Tilghman said his journey with his father throughout those tumultuous Washington streets was a pivotal moment in his life.
In the midst of the rioting, he recalled witnessing people who were in anguish over the King murder, people who had lost hope that racial equality and human rights would ever become a reality in their country.
But, Deacon Tilghman also said their simple act of kindness of delivering food throughout the city appeared to help a distraught population.
“Being able to go out and do things with my father took care of that sense of despair for me,” he said, “and there was a sense of hope, there was a sense of joy, because, we could do something to bring something back into somebody’s life. To bring some sense of peace and some sense of stability.”
Deacon Tilghman said it was his father’s Catholic values that drove him to reach out to the people who were suffering that day and it left an immeasurable impression on him.
It was the catalyst to his future work with the Josephites and then later as an ordained Catholic deacon.
Rev. King too served as the deacon’s inspiration as he established his own ministry.
“I’m trying to live the faith the way all of these men did,” Deacon Tilghman said. “It drove me in 1968 and I’m much clearer on what drives and informs me today.”