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Sean Kirst: After MLK's death, a Buffalo teacher led call for national holiday

Amid the first wave of grief, Samuel L. Woodard remembers being unable to make the call.

Fifty years ago Wednesday, he wept helplessly in his room in Philadelphia. Once the sobbing ended, once he regained composure, he took a breath and forced himself back to the perspective that had carried him since childhood, the only way he could ever make sense of a hard world.

"What I'd always believed," he said, "is that good could come from evil."

This was April 4, 1968. Woodard, only a year beyond his career as a teacher and administrator in the Buffalo city schools, had just learned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot to death in Memphis. Woodard was African-American, a 37-year-old man who cleared formidable obstacles throughout his life to establish himself as a successful and outspoken educator.

Tuesday, in a conversation from his Virginia home, he recalled how he gathered himself, then made the decision to pick up the telephone and call a newspaper in Philadelphia.

In 1968, in the immediate aftermath of King's death, he found himself on the phone with a reporter in that Pennsylvania city, laying out a case that Woodard saw as logical and historically compelling.

Thinking about a nation stunned by the murder, Woodard said there ought to be a national holiday to honor King, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and champion of civil rights who spent his life confronting entrenched American segregation.

By April 7, a day before the first similar proposal was brought to Congress, Woodard's suggestion was moving on the national wires. Mention of the story appeared in many newspapers, including The Buffalo Evening News. It often ran beneath such headlines as the one used by the old Pittsburgh Press, a headline that spoke of the idea as a first-time concept:

"National King Holiday Urged."

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The guy at the center of it was Woodard, an assistant professor of education at Temple University. According to those old newspaper accounts, he offered the proposal along with other members of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity created for African-American men, a fraternity to which King had also belonged.

"Our black children have no heroes," Woodard said at the time, according to that article. "This is part of what the current agitation is all about. A national holiday honoring King would help to weld together the divided factions."

Samuel Woodard, 1966, as a teacher in Buffalo. (News file photo)

He made those statements at a moment when grief and despair were rippling through many American communities, including Buffalo. This city marked King's death with vigils and prayer services. But there also were furious clashes and bursts of anger, shattered windows and hurled bricks and impassioned arguments about who touched off the violence, as simmering pain over years of racial separation boiled over.

On April 9, The Buffalo Evening News ran a front page headline that read, "Uneasy calm grips Buffalo following night of disorder." An accompanying article said 21 people had been hurt and 25 arrested by city police during the night; the paper said a squadron of volunteers, black and white, traveled the streets in an attempt to calm angry youths, who reacted with outrage to the assassination.

Woodard, in Philadelphia, looked for something that might provide a galvanizing cause, a way of reaching toward what he described as beauty and humanity, amid the sorrow.

He had left Buffalo for Temple the year before. According to old newspaper clippings, Woodard arrived in 1953 in Western New York, following college, and took a job at the Chevrolet plant in Tonawanda. By 1954, he was teaching in the city schools.

"He was a good teacher, someone who knew what he was doing, a motivator," said Lum Smith, 74, who in eighth grade was a student of Woodard's, and who later – like Woodard – became a schools administrator in Buffalo.

Recalling those years, Woodard said his educational mission was shaped by his own childhood. His mother died when he was 6, and he was raised by a teenage sister, Naomi. "My mother's last words were, 'Keep the family together,' " Woodard said.

His sister managed to do it, essentially giving up her own childhood to raise her younger siblings. Years later, Woodard created a Naomi Woodard-Smoot Scholarship in her honor at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the school from which he graduated in 1952.

A 'fearless' King spoke to Buffalonians in 1967

The experience of being hungry, of living on public assistance when there was no other choice, led to an empathy that Woodard described as his most powerful philosophical common ground with King. Woodard spoke of an almost obsessive drive to prove that African-American children who grow up in dire circumstances – children sometimes left to all but raise themselves – remained capable of great academic achievement.

His immediate proof, he said, lies in his own example. As a child and a teenager, he earned academic awards for high grades, then went on to advanced degrees at Canisius College and the University at Buffalo. Even when he became a professor at Howard University, he never forgot the everyday lessons from city classrooms in Buffalo, where he maintained publicly that a "double standard" often worked against children of color.

Over the years, Woodard also watched as the effort he championed in 1968, the idea of a holiday to honor Dr. King, was repeatedly sidetracked, until it was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. That took 15 years, and countless men and women played a role in that effort. The holiday is often associated with Stevie Wonder, the great musician, who reignited the idea as a national campaign and whose national tour with Gil-Scott Heron is seen as the last great push.

In 1983, finally, it came to be. In a story that year for The Washington Post, Dorothy Butler Gilliam – the first black female reporter in that paper's history – wrote a piece celebrating the milestone. She mentioned only three names in relation to the long and historic journey to establish a national holiday in King's honor.

"For years before the holiday came into being," she wrote, "singer Stevie Wonder and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Howard University Prof. Samuel L. Woodard all conceived of and dreamed of that holiday."

Wonder, as a performer and humanitarian, is still going strong. Conyers recently stepped down after a long congressional career, amid allegations of sexual misconduct that he denies.

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As for Woodard, a professor emeritus at 87, he downplayed any credit Tuesday. He is an author, an educator and a passionate activist. But he speaks of his allegiance to his fraternity, and he makes no claim to being the first to come up with the notion of honoring someone as luminous as King.

Instead, he reflected for a while on his career before he prepared to say goodbye, because he and his wife, Linda, were hosting relatives.

Woodard, who never forgets losing his mother when he was a child, said the way his life turned out was due to "the grace of God." The dominant mission of his life, from an early age, was trying to create the same kind of hope, the belief in possibility, for generations of children suffering from hunger or neglect.

That goal, he said, is what truly bound him to King.

"My fraternity brother had been murdered," Woodard said, remembering how he wept alone in Philadelphia, before reaching for the phone.

For the sake of its children, he believed this nation might do well with a day to stop and think.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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