Mary Randolph remembers exactly where she was when she heard the news 50 years ago today.
She was with her kids at her home on Sycolin Road, with one eye on the TV that was broadcasting her favorite soap opera. The show was interrupted with a breaking news alert. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot.
“I was in such shock,” she said. “I felt like, here we go again.”
Randolph was one of about 40 longtime Loudoun residents who were invited to attend a resolution reading this morning to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination. The county Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted the “resolution of support for diversity” Tuesday.
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), Loudoun’s first black woman to serve in the county’s highest elected position, thanked those gathered who were on the front lines of the civil rights movement in Loudoun. Randall, who wasn’t alive during the heat of the movement, said she’s always felt like she missed a big moment in history.
“I’ve said so many times—,” Randall stopped, fighting back tears, “that I have not made it to this dais as the chair of the county because of something I did. I am here because of what you all did.”
Most of those who were present at the resolution reading attended Douglass School on East Market Street in Leesburg when the county’s school system was racially segregated. It opened in 1941 thanks to the hard work of the county’s black families to raise money to purchase land for the school when the Loudoun School Board refused to do so. They raised $4,000 to acquire the land and then sold it to the school system for $1.
Randolph said many of those who made Douglass School a reality had very little education themselves. “Yet, they had the fortitude to get that school built.”
Douglass School went on to serve Loudoun’s black students until court-ordered desegregation in 1968, the same year King was killed in Memphis, TN.
Arnold Ambers, who graduated from Douglass in 1960, shared stories of taking part in civil rights demonstrations in Raleigh, NC, and being arrested multiple times. And he recalled the Sunday that he made his way to church only to be told at the entrance that he was not welcome. “That was hard.”
He was stationed with the U.S. Army in Germany in 1968 when he heard that King had been killed. It took about three days for the news to reach him and, when it did, he wondered if it was true.
“It was such a shock because we thought we had made progress on racial tensions. But it showed us, I guess some people will never change,” said Ambers, who was 27 years old at the time. He spoke about the Ku Klux Klan recruitment leaflets that were distributed in Loudoun and Clark counties in recent months and the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last year. “It’s like a bear in hibernation has woken up again. There’s still work to be done.”
Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) said it takes courage to stand against hatred and stand up for decency, diversity, and tolerance, and she thanked the Douglass alumni for their courage. “We wanted to recognize you today because we recognize how very difficult it is to be courageous. We see so much cowardice among our leaders in Washington, we wanted to celebrate your courage.”
“You were activists before activists were cool,” Supervisor Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) added. “You guys are trailblazers. You blazed a path that we now follow to this day.”