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Remembering MLK – ‘We were followers’

REGISTER TO VOTE — Sharon Kirtdoll, treasurer of the Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Steubenville, stands in front of one of the special banners promoting voter registration, the theme for this year’s observance. Kirtdoll reminisced about the day King was assassinated. -- Janice Kiaski

STEUBENVILLE — April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, is a day Sharon Kirtdoll of Steubenville says she won’t forget.

“I remember that day very clearly,” said Kirtdoll, who was about 25 at the time and living in Kansas City with her husband, William, who had begun his ministry as pastor at St. Luke Baptist Church. “It was a sunny day, and I was inside cooking, and Bill was outside on the sidewalk talking to a neighbor, and they were talking and laughing.

“We had that old TV, a black and white, and I heard it come across the TV,” she said of the incredulous news that the prominent leader of the civil rights movement had been gunned down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.

“I was in the kitchen, and I walked in and listened to it, and they were saying that Dr. King had been shot and killed, and I almost froze,” she said.

“I went to the door and stepped out on the porch and called, ‘Bill, there is something on you’ve got to see,’ and he said, ‘Not now, honey, not now,’ and I said, ‘Bill, you’ve got to come now, you’ve got to come now,” she said of the urgency in her voice intensifying.

“And he said, ‘I’m talking,’ and then I know I changed my voice, and I stopped and I screamed, ‘Bill! You have got to come now!'” Kirtdoll said, imitating how she paused between each word for emphasis as part of the stern summons that would finally convince her husband to respond.

“And he looked at me, and I stared at him all the while, walking through the yard I stared at him, and he was staring at me, and he knew it was something serious,” she said.

“For me, it was like telling him his father was dead or had been shot or something,” Kirtdoll said.

“When he reached me, I reached out for his hand, and we came and sat down in front of the TV,” she said. “It wasn’t long after that, the phone started ringing, and the next thing I knew, I was packing a bag for him for leaving that night to go to Memphis because they were going to march the next day.”

Her husband and three other ministers from Kansas City drove to Memphis where King had gone in support of striking African American sanitation workers.

The daughter of the late Willie and Louella Lewis, Kirtdoll grew up in Brilliant. The family moved to Mingo Junction, and Kirtdoll graduated from Mingo High School in 1961. Afterward, she visited her brother in Topeka, Miss., the hometown of her husband-to-be, who was the son of a Baptist minister.

“That’s how we got together,” she said of how she met her husband, whose commitment to civil rights and activism, according to his obituary, “began during his youth as the youth adviser to the NAACP Youth Council when an impressionable encounter with Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall lit the spark for a lifelong commitment to civil rights.”

“He looked up to Martin Luther King, and we were involved in civil rights — him more than me — but we were involved,” Kirtdoll said. “He had marched in Alabama, he had marched in Selma, he had marched in different places.”

The Selma to Montgomery marches were three protest marches held in 1965 along the 54-mile highway from Selma, Ala., to the state capital of Montgomery.

What did news of King’s death mean to Kirtdoll as a young African American woman?

“It was scary,” Kirtdoll said. “I tremble even now when I’m talking about it. It was frightening because it was more or less like one death, but it seemed like, oh Lord, what else is going to happen now? Who else is going to be killed? It seemed like not a war, but attacks were going to start happening — that’s what went through my head.”

When her husband left for Memphis, Kansas City erupted, she said, with fires, looting and gunshots. The Kirtdolls lived in the inner city but had friends from church who lived farther out.

“They called me and told me to pack a bag and come and leave, and I said there’s nothing going on around me, but they would not let me stay in my house by myself so I went out,” she said, noting she still reported to her job at Nelly Don, a clothing manufacturer and distributor, where she worked in an office doing key punch.

“I’d catch a bus to go to work, and I can remember the National Guard drove the buses, they were on every corner, they were all over the city, and as I would get on the bus and look in the faces of those young men, they were afraid, and they looked so young. They were driving the buses and on the street corners and everywhere. There was a lot of looting and burning and sections of the city were just burning and you didn’t go there.

“But I still went to work every day. For a while, it was weird. Nobody said anything to me, and I didn’t say anything to them. In my department I was the only Black,” she said. “Everybody was nice, but quiet.”

To the Kirtdolls, King was “a spiritual and social leader, someone to look up to. We were followers.”

Honoring King’s legacy and his nonviolent approach to social change became a new norm, something revered to anticipate.

“My girls would say the Martin Luther King holiday was like after Christmas what you looked forward to was New Year’s and then you looked forward to Martin Luther King (Day) because we were going to have an April celebration,” she said.

“We didn’t do January. We did April, the day he was assassinated. This was in Kansas City. We came together for a dinner and remembrance, and that was a big day but we marched locally, we continued to march in a lot of different situations that were going on in Kansas City. Our church and we were all very active,” Kirtdoll said.

“When we moved here to Ohio in 1989, I joined the Martin Luther King Association and have been a member since then,” said Kirtdoll, who is its treasurer. Her husband had served as pastor at Second Baptist Church in Steubenville after many years at First Baptist Church in Mingo Junction.

On the threshold of the 2022 MLK national holiday, Kirtdoll verbalizes an observation.

“The difference between the feeling, the sentiment toward the holiday, toward civil rights, toward who Martin Luther King was in the community, are so different,” she said, “and our young people now, the youth of today feel entitled. They don’t recognize that it was the struggle of a generation before them that brought them to this, because they see it as history, as any other history lesson that they learn, and it’s not really a part of them.

“It’s not that relevant. That happened back there. What does that have to do with me now?” Kirtdoll said, noting she and her daughters, in contrast, feel a responsibility to be involved in voter registration education and social issues.

“But these young people don’t feel a responsibility. There’s a sense of entitlement,” she said, adding, “Their commitment is at a different level and comes from a different place.”

With social media’s presence, marching and protesting now has a world stage.

“When we were marching, no, it was that group, there was no social media and nothing going on. If something was going on in Chicago, it was going on in Chicago, and people were protesting what was in Chicago, not what was (going on) in another city.”

“Here in Steubenville we have a certain segment of the community that will observe the holiday,” Kirtdoll said when asked if she’s satisfied with how the holiday is marked nationally. “Even when we were having the big events on Saturday and Sunday and Monday, it was still a certain group that celebrated.”

One part of it she especially appreciated involved student essays absent the past two years because of COVID-19.

“With the essays we started doing in the schools that was wonderful, and the participation was wonderful. The participation we had from that was really fantastic. It was something to be in awe of,” she said, expressing hope that it will return next year..

King embraced nonviolence, Kirtdoll stressed.

“The marches we participated in, they were nonviolent on the protesters’ end but they were violent on the other end. I would say Dr. King was a mentor. His philosophy was based on nonviolence, and so that’s what he taught.”

For many years, the association embraced the theme of “Keeping the Dream Alive.”

“Dr. King’s dream is not the dream of our young people today, because that dream has been accomplished,” she said. “We can ride in airplanes and be on television and get an education. We can get jobs. Keeping the dream alive is no longer a relevant issue — we’ve got to have new and different dreams that fit this generation, and that’s why it’s important that we have the MLK Association, the NAACP and these other organizations where our young people can learn and work as a group rather than as an individual, because in working as an individual so many get left out.”

Voter registration is this year’s theme.

“That came from Atlanta. Dr. King’s son, Dexter, was asking during this COVID season, no celebrations, concentrate on voter registration. Voter registration is what could make a difference for people to be able to exercise their right.”

Asked what she most wanted to get across to readers, Kirtdoll responded, “We need to understand that we don’t arrive to where we are today as individuals, that we have a rich heritage, we have many hats that we have worn and we’ve come this far and we owe recognition to our ancestors or to the people who struggled and helped us to get where we are today.

“We can’t just act out of our own selfishness and our own understanding. We need to be educated and informed about society. We need to be educated and informed about our history and about our future. The world has changed and we have changed with it, but we need to make the changes for the better. It’s time for people who know better to do better. That’s what I’m praying for, and it’s hard to understand when good people make bad choices. It’s hard to understand what is happening. Even when it comes to not just civil rights but COVID. Good people who say, ‘No, I’m not going to get the shot.’ We’ve got to think beyond just ourselves. We have a responsibility — all of us — to each other and society as a whole.”

(Kiaski can be contacted at jkiaski@heraldstaronline.)

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