Tennesseans Respond: The Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Written by Sarah Calise, Archivist

On April 4, 1968, James Early Ray murdered civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The city’s sanitation workers and public works employees were in the midst of a strike for fair living wages and safe working conditions. King was in Memphis to support this protest, and, on April 3, he gave his final speech–“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”–at the Masonic Temple.

After King’s assassination, Tennesseans sent letters to the offices of Senator Albert Gore, Sr. and Representative Richard Fulton expressing a variety of views on the tragedy. This blog post will share samples of these responses

Some Tennesseans wrote Senator Gore asking him about the advancement of civil rights legislation to honor King’s life and legacy. Many specifically referenced the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act. Tennessean Fred M. Harris wrote this letter to Gore at 11 o’clock the night of King’s assassination. Harris asked Gore to “assume a outspoken roll [sic] of leadership in the immediate passage of the current civil rights bill.” Click here to read the transcript of Harris’ letter.


For some Tennesseans, the death of King prompted them to contact Senator Gore for the first time. Similarly, a few constituents mentioned watching the nightly news when civil rights leaders Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young urged White people, who believed in King’s message, to write their representatives about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Click images to view larger. Click here for the transcript of these three letters.

In their letters to Congress, some White citizens of Tennessee reflected upon their own role in perpetuating racial violence and inequality, mainly through their silence. In late February 1968, President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders released their final report on the causes for racial unrest in the United States. Often called the Kerner Report, it concluded that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white–separate and unequal.” The report stated “white racism” as the cause for such division and inequality. This letter from Mary Ann Leonard of Memphis demonstrated how one self-identified white moderate responded to King’s assassination. Leonard wrote, “I feel that I and many other moderate whites have contributed to the current conditions in Memphis and in the country by our silence when extremists of both races have spoken out….I am afraid that if moderate Americans of any race do not speak and act now, our country will be torn apart.” Click below to view her entire letter, and click here for a transcript.

Senator Gore and Representative Fulton received hate-filled and racist letters, too. There were many constituents concerned about President Johnson’s order to lower the flag at half mast to honor King. Some called it hypocritical. Many thought King was undeserving of such a gesture because they blamed him for riots, looting, and violence. One White woman was so upset that she questioned whether or not she wanted to bring a child into a world that lowered a flag for “a controversial figure” like King. Gore simply replied that “the President, as Commander-in-Chief, has the authority to order the flag flown at half-staff.” Below are some examples of these responses. Click each letter to view it larger, and click here for the transcript of each letter.

As weeks went on and April turned to May, Gore also received letters from constituents asking him to not make any emotional decisions about passing civil rights legislation. Constituents, on the other hand, rarely separated emotions and politics. Examining constituent mail to Senator Gore before, immediately after, and long after King’s assassination shows that emotions and politics constantly intertwined. Before the tragedy, a majority of the letters sent to Gore passionately directed him to vote against the open housing bill. Immediately following King’s death, letters poured into Gore’s offices and pleaded with him to lead the country in progressive civil rights measures. After a few weeks, constituent mail reverted back to asking Gore to be levelheaded in his voting record.

March on Washington012

Dr. Martin Luther King at the March on Washington, 1963. Image courtesy of the Marion Peck Papers, Albert Gore Research Center.

Emotional and tragic events–assassinations, school shootings, police brutality, etc.–prompt political discussions all the time, and sometimes lead to legislation. Although it was well on its way to passing, President Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law on April 11–one week after King’s assassination. Of course, constituents should be emotional about politics because the decisions being made at the local, state, and national levels directly affect all of our lives. But maybe we should also strive for being actively engaged year-round, instead of only contacting representatives after these emotional events occur.

The letters that struck me the most when researching how Tennesseans responded to King’s murder were those from people who admitted to writing to their congressman for the first time, or those White constituents who thought that if only they had spoken up earlier and more often, perhaps things would have been different.

As we reflect upon the life, the legacy, and the tragedy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week (and every week), let us also reflect upon how each of us makes a difference in our communities, big or small.

Additional resources from the Gore Center on the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination:

For other “Tennesseans Respond” blog posts, see: “Tennesseans Respond: The Revolts of 1967,” and “Tennesseans Respond: The Rosenberg Trial.”

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Movement 68: Black Student Organizing

Written by Sarah Calise, Archivist

The Black student activism that occurred on MTSU’s campus in the late 1960s was part of a larger national movement. According to historian Dr. Martha Biondi, in her book The Black Revolution on Campus, “Black students organized protests on nearly two hundred college campuses across the United States in 1968 and 1969.”1 Many of these Black students used grassroots organizing efforts to reform university policies and to demand better representation on a variety of campuses–public and private, historically black and predominantly white.

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Sylvester Brooks, of C.U.B.E., attends a student club fair. (Sidelines Oct. 21, 1968)

Black students lost patience for “token integration” and set their sights toward “new politics of racial pride and assertion.”2 In 1968 and 1969, MTSU Black students formed organizations like C.U.B.E (Creating Understanding By Effort) and the Black Student Union (BSU). These institutions sought empowerment and transformation on campus and in the Murfreesboro community. Both C.U.B.E. and BSU created change through specific educational goals. C.U.B.E. ran a tutoring program for Murfreesboro’s K-12 students, held trips to cultural heritage sites, sponsored Black film festivals and book clubs, and pushed for the introduction of Black courses at MTSU.3 Meanwhile, BSU focused on creating a safe and supportive environment for Black students. The organization administered Black History Week activities, brought notable Black speakers to campus (like Julian Bond), and also supported the need for Black history courses.

The efforts of the Black student movement came with harsh reprisals, “including criminal prosecution and…violent police invasions.”4 At MTSU, activists like Sylvester Brooks received death threats, intimidating anonymous phone calls, and mail that suggested people were always watching him, much like the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Counterintelligence Program.5 When the Black Student Union started the bureaucratic process of becoming an officially recognized student organization, they received resentment from white students who thought the group was “separatist, bigoted, militant, or even communist.”6 In May of 1969, Carla Neal interviewed several Black students in a column published in Sidelines that directly tackled misinformed viewpoints about BSU. Read her full column below or click here for a transcript.

BSU letter

Despite the backlash, the Black student movement transformed the academic community. Scholar Robert L. Allen noted that these students’ efforts widened educational democracy, and the call for Black Studies programs paved the way for “the introduction of new and revolutionary ideas into the curriculum.”7 Demanded by students, MTSU’s first Black history course began in the fall of 1969. Called “The Negro American,” the objective of the class was “a study of the changing role and status of the Negro in American life and his contributions to the culture and institutions of the United States.”8 The course complemented the work that C.U.B.E. and the BSU conducted with their educational outreach. MTSU’s Black faculty and students continue to implement Black-centered education today–this past fall semester the university became the first in Tennessee to offer an Africana Studies major.

bsu awaits approval

Founding members of the Black Student Union. (Sidelines May 15, 1969)

Ultimately, the “energy and idealism” of these young Black students in the late 1960s “inspired Latino, Asian American, and progressive white students to launch and intensify their own campus crusades.”9 The Gore Center’s Movement 68 initiative seeks to explore the many ways in which MTSU’s own Black student movement shaped our campus and our community over the past 50 years. How far have we come? And how much further do we have to go to achieve equity in higher education at MTSU, in Tennessee, and across the United States? For more information on Movement 68 programs, please visit our website.


  1. Martha Biondi, The Black Revolution on Campus (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), 1.
  2. Ibid, 6.
  3. Kathy Miller, “CUBE Sponsors Tutoring Program,” Sidelines (Murfreesboro, TN), Oct. 21, 1968.
  4. Biondi, 3.
  5. Sylvester Brooks, interview with Erin Toomey, September 30, 2000, interview MT24, Albert Gore Research Center.
  6. Carla Neal, “Students Must Not Take Misinformed Viewpoint of Black Student Union,” Sidelines (Murfreesboro, TN), May 15, 1969.
  7. Biondi, 11.
  8. Bulletin of the Middle Tennessee State University, Vol. XLII, No. 2, April 1969, Albert Gore Research Center.
  9. Biondi, 2.
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Gore: Freedom of the ballot box is the very essence of democracy

Written by Sarah Calise, Archivist

In 1965, Senator Albert Gore and his colleagues in Congress considered legislation aimed at dismantling the state and local barriers that prevented black Americans from fully exercising their right to vote granted by the 15th Amendment. Leading up to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in August, Gore received hundreds of letters from Tennesseans about voting rights, including many that discussed the protest marches in Selma, Alabama. Gore responded to these letters with the following:

I believe the right of qualified citizens freely to exercise the franchise is clearly guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Nevertheless, there are areas, as we have seen, where certain citizens have been and are being systematically denied the right to vote. This cannot be tolerated. Freedom of the ballot box is the very essence of democracy.

Gore’s entire response can be read below, with a transcription available on our website:

voting rights-gore043

As expected, Tennesseans had various reactions to the Voting Rights Act and the marches for voter registration happening in Alabama. Some urged Senator Gore to vote against the bill and “come to the aid” of Alabama’s segregationist Governor George Wallace, who used brutal tactics against Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists seeking an end to voter suppression. Below are some examples of these letters, with transcriptions available on our website(Click each image to view larger)

For others, the violence Governor Wallace used against the protest marchers demonstrated the immense need for legislation protecting voting rights, and these constituents pleaded with Gore to support the bill. Below are some examples of letters in support of the Voting Rights Act, with transcriptions available on our website. (Click each image to view larger)

In recent years, people of color and other marginalized communities have seen an increase in voting restrictions that undermine the 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Brennan Center for Justice is one of several organizations fighting voter suppression. You can learn more about this civil rights issue on their website, which features informative articles, maps, and guides on taking action: https://www.brennancenter.org/issues/restricting-vote.

To research the Papers of Senator Albert Gore contact me at Sarah.Calise@mtsu.edu, or call 615-898-2632.

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Grand Re-Opening: Research the LWV of Murfreesboro/Rutherford County!

Written by Kelsey Lamkin, Graduate Assistant


The accretions to the League of Women Voters of Murfreesboro/Rutherford County Records have been processed. The accretions nearly doubled the size of the original records, and now they are ready for researchers!

The records reveal a great deal about Murfreesboro’s past. Most of the materials are from the 1950s through the 2000s. Included in the records are books, maps, plans, press releases, scrapbooks, and photographs documenting the last half-century of the League. Some items include development plans for Murfreesboro Municipal Airport, along with comprehensive transportation studies and city planning documents.

Local and national elections are represented in the records, of course. Posters, fliers, and debate materials provide insight into the League’s mission of educating the public about political candidates, elections, and the workings of local government. The League’s publications and press releases help citizens understand the power of their vote and their ability to make a difference in their community.

Besides elections, the League also researches and produces material about certain political and social issues, such as public school education and the environment. The Publications series contains documents on natural resources, recycling, and nuclear power, among other issues.

While the League devotes much of its time to the democratic process, women’s issues are at the heart of its mission. The League remains committed to increasing turnout of women to the polls and also elevating them to elected positions. All issues are significant to women, but the records specifically feature materials relating to women, such as reproductive choice and the Equal Rights Amendment. (Click on the images below to view larger)

Visit the Albert Gore Research Center and learn more about the League of Women Voters of Murfreesboro/Rutherford County! Please contact Sarah.Calise@mtsu.edu for access to the updated finding aid.

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Reflections from STA 2017

Written by Andrew McMahan, Graduate Assistant

Last week, November 1-3, I had the privilege of attending the Society of Tennessee Archivists conference in Jonesborough. The conference’s theme this year was “Archives in Action.”

I was able to attend some impressive sessions. Jennifer Randles and Allison Griffey from the Tennessee State Library and Archives presented “Streamlining Digital Collections: Getting the Most Out of Your Microfilm” in which they discussed their work on the newly digitized and published Record of Ex-Soldiers in World War I, Tennessee Counties, 1917-1919 collection. They pointed out that these service abstracts are of high value to researchers and will help to fill in gaps in the record left by the National Personnel Records Center Fire in 1973. They also used their experience with this collection to suggest ways for archivists at other institutions to digitize their holdings. Likewise, Sarah Calise’s presentation, “Archives Inaction: Decades of Not Doing Enough,” was both informative and thought-provoking. She asserted that archivists are not doing enough to ensure that archives are an inclusive space. She pointed out that white archivists (the vast majority of professionals in the field) continue to uphold oppressive practices in the acquisition, description, and access of materials. She encouraged archivists to undertake more community engagement and intensive self-reflection in order make our repositories more inclusive of minority groups.

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Panel on student internships at Society of Tennessee Archivists 40th Annual Meeting, November 2017.

While at the STA conference, I was able to participate in a student-led round table in which we discussed internships. We talked about what we look for in an internship, how we find them, how to make the most of professional experience during graduate school, and the dilemma of paid and unpaid internships. We engaged in a lively and constructive discussion with the professionals that were able to attend our presentation, and felt that our views received fair consideration and positive feedback.

The city of Jonesborough provided excellent entertainment for us archivists in between sessions. The downtown historic district is beautiful. I highly recommend that visitors to the area stop in and make time to take a stroll down Main Street and admire the historic buildings of the oldest city in Tennessee. One of the highlights of the trip in my opinion was the tour of Tennessee Hills Distillery just off of Main Street. The building itself is historic and, most importantly, they give out samples!

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Movement ‘68: Honoring 50 Years of Black Student Protests at MTSU

Written by Sarah Calise, Archivist

The Albert Gore Research Center is excited to announce the start of Movement ‘68. What is Movement ‘68? It is a series of events and projects centered on the many waves of black student protests at MTSU that started in October 1968. Movement ‘68 includes: a call for donations, oral history interviews, traveling and online exhibits, primary source interactions on social media using #MVMT68, and a one-day conference called the Movement ‘68 Symposium that will examine the documentation, preservation, and interpretation of campus protest movements at MTSU and throughout Tennessee. We hope that students, staff, faculty, members of the Murfreesboro community and wider public will join us in honoring these courageous black students, and help us all work toward a more inclusive, accepting environment on and off campus.

Look for other announcements this week related to specific events or projects. For more information, please visit the pages on our (new) website related to Movement ‘68.

Movement ‘68: A Historical Overview

On October 21, 1968, Middle Tennessee State University’s student newspaper, Sidelines, published a guest column from Sylvester Brooks, a black student from Memphis, Tennessee. Titled “Dixie: What Does It Mean?” Brooks asked the white student body why they continued to wave Confederate flags, sang the Dixie fight song, and paid homage to Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. He addressed how these activities alienated black students and, therefore, “should be banned and abolished.” He challenged white students to move forward with a New South that included everybody, which meant ridding the campus of Confederate symbols. As Brooks said, “You cannot seek a newer world while clinging so passionately to the relics of days long given to the past.”[1]


Sylvester Brooks, left, seated next to Robert Rucker. From the 1970 Midlander yearbook housed at the Albert Gore Research Center.

Brooks’ column caused contentious debate among the MTSU community. Sidelines published a series of letters from students and faculty that directly responded to Brooks’ arguments against the usage of Confederate symbols on campus.[2] For every person in support of Brooks’ ideas, there were just as many people against them. Over the next few years, black students protested the university’s relationship with the Confederacy and Nathan Bedford Forrest. The students’ persistence resulted in a couple of changes, including a new mascot and fight song at sporting events.[3]  Many of these students also got the administration to offer the school’s first black history courses, and they founded the Black Student Union in 1969.

Since 1968, MTSU students have continued to protest against Confederate symbolism on campus. In the 1989-1990 academic year, the university’s NAACP student chapter succeeded in persuading the administration to remove the 600-pound bronze medallion of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the outside wall of Keathley University Center.[4] In 2006, black students protested the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest Hall (the ROTC building). The students, particularly protest leader Amber Perkins, received guidance from Sylvester Brooks on how to handle the backlash from Murfreesboro’s white community and the university’s administration.[5] The university decided to keep the building’s name until a new wave of activism began during the 2015-2016 academic year, which finally resulted in the administration’s decision to seek approval for a name change from both the Tennessee Board of Regents and the Tennessee Historical Commission. However, as of September 2017, the Tennessee Historical Commission delayed the final decision on whether to approve a name change for Forrest Hall, so students continue to protest and demonstrate their frustrations about the deliberately slow process.

[1] Sylvester Patrick Brooks, “’Dixie’: What Does It Mean?” Sidelines (Murfreesboro, TN), Oct. 21, 1968.

[2] “I’ll Take My Stand in Dixieland,” Sidelines (Murfreesboro, TN), Oct. 24, 1968.

[3] Josh Howard, “A Confederate on Campus: Nathan Bedford Forrest as MTSU’s Mascot,” Sport in American History (blog), August 24, 2015, https://ussporthistory.com/2015/08/24/nathan-bedford-forrest-and-mtsu/.

[4] Rusty Gerbman, “ASB Asks for Vote on Forrest Statue,” Sidelines (Murfreesboro, TN), Feb. 22, 1990.

[5] Sarah Lavery, “Amber Perkins Won’t Back Down,” Sidelines (Murfreesboro, TN), Mar. 26, 2007.

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2017 AGRC Graduate Assistants


Pictured from Left to Right: University Archivist Donna Baker with Graduate Assistants Kelsey Lamkin, Andrew McMahan, April Blevins, and Zach Kautzman

The Albert Gore Research Center employs four graduate students during the academic year. The center serves as a place for these students to receive hands-on public history experience alongside their classroom work. We would like to introduce this year’s graduate assistants:

Kelsey Lamkin is a second year M.A. student in the public history program.  Originally from West Tennessee, she moved to Murfreesboro four years ago. She received her undergraduate degree in Anthropology at MTSU. Shes focuses her work in the field of historic preservation, and had the distinct honor of interning with the Metro Historic Zoning Commission during the summer. After graduation, Kelsey is hoping to preserve historic structures within the community.

She also has a special interest in women’s history. Her thesis examines the ways that sexual regulations during World War II limited women’s ability to navigate the public sphere.

Kelsey’s Fun Fact: If she could read the diary of any historical figure it would be the diary of Marie Antoinette because she is such a controversial person in history.

Andrew McMahan is a second year M.A. student in public history and a resident of Murfreesboro. He graduated with a B.A. in history from MTSU in May of 2016. His research interests are the American Civil War, World War I, and war memory. He’s studying to be an archivist, and has earned ample experience working at both the Gore Center and the Rutherford County Archives.

In his free time, Andrew enjoys working on cars or reading something that has not been assigned for a class. Much to his beautiful wife’s annoyance, he often spends his weekends at local car shows and cruise-ins.

Andrew’s Fun Fact: If he could sing a duet with any historical figure it would be Molly Hatchet’s “Flirtin’ with Disaster” with Theodore Roosevelt.

April Blevins grew up in Memphis, Tennessee as the third of five daughters. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Public History at Middle Tennessee State University.

April received a B.A. in Classical Studies from Dartmouth College. After leaving Hanover, she moved back to Memphis where she worked for General Electric for 2 years. She then decided to pursue a Masters in Library Science at North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina. While at NCCU, April studied archives and received hands-on archival training through internships at Duke, NCCU, and UNC Chapel Hill.

Her current research interests focus on the construction of Civil Rights memory through the origins of the Civil Rights archives. She also has an interest in gender and its role in the NAACP as well as the black power movement.

April’s Fun Fact: If she could read any historical figure’s diary, she would read Cathay Williams’ diary to find out what her life was like after serving in the U.S. Army.

Zach Kautzman is a second year M.A. student in the public history program. He is from Mandan, North Dakota and received his B.S. in History and Public History with a minor in Anthropology at North Dakota State University. He is focusing on archival work in his graduate program, and interned as the Institutional Archivist at the American Association for State and Local History in Nashville.

Zach’s main research area is Western U.S. studies. His thesis topic explores the relationships between local and national history in the context of state Prohibition in North Dakota.

Zach’s Fun Fact: If he could read the diary of any historical figure it would be Henry VIII, so he can read about the day Henry decided to create the Church of England.

Now that you “know” our graduate assistants, feel free to stop by and say hi! Remember to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to see what our archivists and graduate assistants are up to during the academic year. We look forward to helping you research and preserve the past!

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