Earlier this week, we celebrated the life and vision of Martin Luther King, Jr., and we here at University Archives found some documents that add a sort of immediacy to the event that for many of us is situated in the distant past.
Four days after the assassination of King, the University of North Carolina held a University Memorial Service at Memorial Hall, one in a series of memorials and marches held across the state. The program for the service is an overview of the hymns sung, the Bible passages read, and the prayers recited. Also included is a call-and-response passage entitled “Martin Luther King’s Vision: A Litany” and a reading from early 20th century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Journal of My Other Self.
The final page in this set of documents is a call to sign a petition, which reads:
In the spirit of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, we, the undersigned legal residents of Chapel Hill, urgently request the Board of Aldermen to pass as soon as possible an enforceable open housing ordinance.
The ordinance, which passed a few weeks later, stated that “no owner of real property shall discriminate against any other person because of religion, race, color, or national origin or ancestry of other such person” in the sale and rental of properties in Chapel Hill.
While the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was integrated in 1955, and Chapel Hill was considered racially progressive at the time, much work remained at the time of King’s death in the struggle to achieve racial equality. The death of King inspired Howard Nathanial Lee to seek the mayorship of Chapel Hill. He was sworn in as the first African American mayor of Chapel Hill in May of 1969.
The spring of 1968 was a high-water mark for the unrest at UNC and in Chapel Hill that began in February of 1960 with the sit-in at Colonial Drug on West Franklin and would continue into the ’70s with civil rights marches and draft protests, which were covered often by the Daily Tar Heel.
It’s strange to think that around this same time, in 1968, Resurrection City, a tent city set up by the King-founded Poor People’s Campaign, went up in Washington, D.C. to protest poverty and unemployment. It is a startling reminder of the nearness of that time, that 1968 wasn’t all that long ago.
Archival materials often suggest that history is less a neatly linear progression of events and more an amalgam of competing voices and incompatible histories, struggling to adapt to changing political and economic contexts; they also teach us that our ideals, as high as they might be, are ultimately enmeshed in the historic specificity of the periods in which they are formed and in which they must have their real effects. And this complex palimpsest of interests, ideals, beliefs, and desires can appear all at once even in a seemingly minor object from the archive: a singular combination, for instance, of photograph and text that immediately embodies some of the various and contradictory beliefs, justifications, and events that together formed the complex life-world of that object’s present moment now past.
And while we are grateful to have left some of that past behind, we should never forget it. Thankfully, the places and objects around us, overflowing as they are with traces of the past, never will.
—Lawrence Giffin and Lori Neumeier