Newark man remembers inviting MLK Jr. to school 50 years ago

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Wednesday will mark 50 years since the death of civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King spoke at a Newark high school just days before he was assassinated. He was invited to the school by then 17-year-old Winthrop McGriff.

McGriff says that he was just elected class president at South Side High School in 1967 and that he wanted to recruit someone to speak at the school who might make an impact.

Newark was still reeling from a riot that previous summer. McGriff says that he put out a call to Dr. King to see if he would come to the school.

“He said, ‘This is Dr. King.’ I dropped the phone and I said, ‘Oh my God,’” McGriff says.

Dr. King agreed to come to the school and speak. McGriff says that he had to convince his principal that he wasn’t kidding.

“He said, ‘Martin Luther King?’ and so I said yes and he said, ‘What are you on?’” McGriff recalls.

Dr. King addressed the South Side High School senior class on March 27, 1968. McGriff says that King’s speech was about the importance of learning and staying in school so that one can be successful in life.

“He said to me…’Windy, remember one thing. When anyone tells you you can’t, you can,” McGriff says.

Besides the speech at South Side High School, Dr. King’s historic visit to Newark also included visits to churches and neighborhoods. It would be the last city King would tour. He was killed April 4, 1968 at a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.

The city of Newark commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s Mountaintop sermon Tuesday evening. The speech was delivered the night before he died. 

The Newark Public Library has readings and a discussion planned for Wednesday. More information about the event can be found at the Newark Public Library's website.

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