I was the lowest rung on the Baton Rouge (Louisiana) Morning Advocate newsroom ladder, but still very much a player. Dinnertime saw

Barry Zander’s front-page story on Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Photo by Barry Zander

the news and sports desks empty with only me, the nighttime newsroom receptionist, left minding the store.

In the total quiet, Teletype machines began clacking, spitting out tape with the alert bell ringing. I strolled over to the wire desk to see what the commotion was about and read that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot in Memphis.

No one was around, so I decided to get things going by contacting community leaders in Baton Rouge from both the black and political contingents to get comments. When City Editor Ed Price and the crew returned, I knew they would pick up the story from there.

Surprisingly, Price commended me on my initiative and urged me to keep going. I had an advantage over most of the staff, having taken on the role of reporter for the busy Mississippi River port, giving me access to many business and union leaders in the black community.

Every call began with a shocked response, since news of the assassination hadn’t gotten out, yet. But after initial reactions, I got the quotes I needed. As the night bore on, I wrote the local reaction article for the morning paper.

I handed my story to Price, who threw it back to me saying something to the effect of, “Don’t put the lead on the most furious interview. Lead with the most substantial source.”

Twenty minutes later, I resubmitted the article, which was immediately accepted. I earned my first top-of-page-1 byline in the Advocate. I waited around for the first papers to roll off the presses. Quite a thrill.

I left that night for New Orleans for Air National Guard drill duty, returning to town Sunday night with classes at Louisiana State University starting at 7:30 a.m. On the way back, I stopped at a cross burning on U.S. 61. I got out, took a photo and turned toward the car just as a group of men came out of a nearby building.

They challenged why I was there. Most were hostile, but one convinced them to let me leave in peace. As I drove away, I heard a shot. Next morning, I found a bullet hole in the trunk of the car directly below where I was sitting — 50 years ago last week.

 Barry Zander