One of the first demonstrations in which I ever participated was the one held in Montreal on Sunday, April 7, 1968 – some forty years ago. Only a few days earlier, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, an event which precipitated civil unrest and rioting throughout the United States. The shock and anger at his murder was also palpable in this city and a very public manifestation was seen as a way of giving vent to those feelings.
I was 21 years of age at the time and a student at Sir George Williams University, today Concordia. Along with students from McGill University, we gathered that morning in front of the Hall Building with our signs – “We shall overcome,” Somewhere I heard about freedom,” Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and my all-time favourite, “All wars are civil because all men are brothers.” Later, we trooped through the streets of Montreal towards Dominion Square. Reports from the time indicate that there were approximately 700 at the outset of the march but when at Peel and Dorchester the estimate was revised to 2,000.
Once at the square, flowers were place at the cenotaph and a minute of silence in Dr. King’s memory was observed. Many community activists addressed the crowd, not the least of whom were Stokely Carmichel and the late Rosie Douglas. Unlike the disastrous situation south of the border, there was absolutely no violence that early spring day all those years ago.
Less than five years earlier, I (and millions of others) were deeply moved by Martin Luther King’s magnificent “I Have a Dream” address at the Washington Monument in the American capital. It was surely one of the most remarkable examples of public oration of the last century and contrasts most favourably with the photo-op, staged creations in which most politicians and many others engage today. King, who seemed to have a presentiment that his life was in imminent danger at the time of the Memphis march, was a man of singular strength and profound conviction, transcending both race and religious interests in his pursuit of a universal common good.
I felt it then and feel it still: our very troubled world could do with a few more of his kind.