JEFFERSON, IOWA — The Jefferson, Iowa farmhouse may be a far cry from Memphis, Tennessee but fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr at the Lorraine Motel, pieces of that day live on vividly. “Dr. King’s blood on that landing. They got down and they scooped that blood into a jar and they took that with them,” recalled, former Des Moines Register columnist Chuck Offenburger who was just a college student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Offenburger was working for the school newspaper when shots rang out. He said, “My friend came running into the news office April 4, 1968 and said Dr. King had been shot and I said we have to go to Memphis.”
Offenburger and his friend Mark McCrackin hopped on a plane arriving in Memphis shortly after the assassination. “We went to a cab and asked them to take us to the Lorraine Motel and he said he couldn’t. It was too dangerous there were riots starting. There were fires,” said Offenburger. After changing the driver’s mind with extra cab fare, Chuck and Mark arrived at the hotel. They gained access because of Chuck’s older brother. “My brother was Tom Offenburger, now deceased. He was Dr. King’s press secretary for the last three years of Dr. King’s life,” said Offenburger.
Two college students spending some of the darkest hours in the civil rights movement with key figures like Ralph Abernathy, James Bevel, Jesse Jackson, Hosea Williams and Andrew Young. “Most of these staff members had lost not only their leader but their mentor. Dr. King had really brought them along,” said Offenburger.
Decisions were made on how to handle the assassination. Offenburger said, “The scene from mid-evening to the next morning was calmer than you might think except busy because of the phone calls and continued to go on all night long. I don’t think anybody slept at all. Then Senator Bobby Kennedy from New York called and he was sending an airplane from the Kennedy family to pick up the staff and Dr. King’s body.”
Vanderbilt classes were cancelled for days Offenburger said, “It was shock and grief.” Sadness turned to anger. “Kind of a time of rage against hatred. If hatred killed Dr. King then this was a reaction from all kinds of people,” he said.
Offenberger noticed so much social change going to Vanderbilt in the 1960’s and senses a resurgence. He noticed a similar feeling at a recent March For Our Lives rally in Des Moines.” I’m seeing that youth movement crank up like it has in the last couple weeks and I think it is great,” said Offenburger. He added, “Young people can make changes in this country. That has been our history.” King’s voice echoes through such groups today. Offenburger said, “Dr. King was thirty-nine when he was killed. They had already changed the world and what might have been if he would have lived on.”