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A reminiscence on Martin Luther King Day

King was so much more than a politician; he led the upward struggle of his people.

During several years of my service on a neighborhood board when most of the seats were held by Somalis, I told the members this remembrance.

In 1968 I lived in a duplex at 513 16th Ave. South, Minneapolis, an address that disappeared a few years later with the construction of the 1,300-plus units of Cedar Square West, now known as Riverside Plaza and primarily occupied by Somali and Oromo tenants in recent times. 

When the shocking news came that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, I felt profoundly saddened. King was so much more than a politician; he led the upward struggle of his people.

My thoughts must have gone to Clarence Williams. He was unusual for being a black man who maintained a business on Cedar Avenue in my West Bank neighborhood, his barbershop. At the time there were three barbershops on that part of Cedar, and I had tried all of them. Ben Magdon’s was decorated with pictures of homeland World War II scenes, painted by some local artist, perhaps Ben himself. To get Ben to cut your hair you might have to fetch him from the 400 Bar next door, where he would be at the pool table. I guess his barbering seemed passable, unremarkable. Several blocks farther south on the other side of the street was a shop where several gray-haired Scandinavians barbered. They were pleasant old guys, but they used dull scissors and tended to pull hairs. Williams became my barber because he was the most skilled. He was also proud of the fact that he had been one of the first blacks hired by the Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain when he lived back east.

So on that day in April of 1968 I looked in the mirror and decided to get a haircut. I found Williams alone in his shop. I went directly to the barber chair, sat down, and Williams proceeded to cut my hair with his usual care. No one else came in, and the shop was silent except for the sound of barbering. When he finished, I paid and departed. Neither of us had uttered a word. The sadness had been nearly tangible.

The tragic nature of the event carried a very heavy emotional blow, heavier than the other noted assassinations of that era, I thought, and it still does. King’s death, like that of Abraham Lincoln, was a direct consequence of his efforts on behalf of civil rights, American unity and human dignity. Like Lincoln, he had accomplished much and intended to do more.

And today we have a celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday, life and achievements, a reminder of the work that remains for us to do.

David Markle is an acoustical designer and writer who lives in Minneapolis.


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