On April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Even without today’s technology and unprecedented connectivity to the rest of the world, the impact of King’s death was a shockwave felt from coast to coast. Blacksburg and Virginia Tech were no exception.
In 1953, Irving L. Peddrew III was admitted to Virginia Tech, and was the only African American in his class. It was a historic event, as his admittance “made Virginia Tech the first historically white, four-year, public university in the former Confederacy to admit a black undergraduate.” As time progressed, more African American students were admitted to Virginia Tech, and several were students during the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of Martin Luther King Jr.
One of those students was also one of the first female African American students admitted to Virginia Tech, Linda Edmonds Turner, Ph.D. Turner graduated in 1970 with a bachelor’s in clothing, textiles and related art. She then attended graduate school at Virginia Tech and earned an MBA and a Ph.D. in business administration.
During her time at Virginia Tech, Turner was exposed to a mix of people who fully supported her, people who seemed indifferent that she was there and others who actively tried to diminish the role of the black community on campus, as well as the impact Martin Luther King Jr. had on the nation.
“I think there were 25 or so black men [out of] 8,000 men, so we were quite outnumbered,” Turner said. “We were treated okay, but sometimes some people just looked at us. It was like being on stage 24 hours a day.”
Turner, along with several other African American students at Virginia Tech, found a group of people that were going through the same things she was.
“We were like a family among ourselves on that campus,” Turner said. “When we were down, we shared it with each other. When we were up, we shared it with each other. We came from segregated environments and Virginia Tech had been segregated, so we had to make our own way.”
Two years before Turner finished her degree at Virginia Tech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The news shocked Turner and made her feel a mix of disappointment, anger and utter sadness. But the one thing that has stuck with her to this day is what happened next.
“The thing that I remember next and that has haunted me and stayed with me all of my life is the next day there was a group of students that were pro-Martin Luther King, pro-black, liberal students that put the flag at half-staff. Then another group, anti, would raise it back up to full-staff,” Turner said. “Dr. Martin Luther King’s death made me understand that no matter how hard or how just the cause, there were people that still would hate you.”
Turner also remembers that flag was slightly ripped at the edges, which she saw as a metaphor for the state of the country at the time.
Turner’s senior year roommate, Lucy Minogue Rowland, was the second female editor in chief of The Virginia Tech, now the Collegiate Times. Rowland also helped organize a debate focused on civil rights, in the middle of which King’s death was announced to a full house of students and faculty.
“I think it was a student government president who came out and announced … Dr. King had been shot,” Rowland said. “There was a gasp, but first dead silence.”
More than anything, uncertainty seemed to be the most overwhelming emotion following King’s death. The 1960s and early 1970s were certainly a time of agitation with the Vietnam War intensifying, John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and the Kent State shootings in 1970.
“There was just anxiety in general about the direction of the nation and unrest across the country, so it was increasing anxiety,” said Tom Tillar, special assistant to the dean of the Pamplin College of Business.
Tillar graduated in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and went on to pursue both a master’s in student personnel services and a doctor of education degree at Virginia Tech. He previously served as vice president of alumni relations until 2015.
“It was shocking and sad. And in one way we really didn't know why is this going to make any difference. What’s going to happen next?” said Nancy Hobbs, a graduate of the 1966 class who then went on to pursue a master’s degree.
Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement undoubtedly affected the entire nation, but also drastically impacted former students of Virginia Tech. Many argue that the effects of the movement still live on at Virginia Tech today.
“There has clearly been a gradual improvement in diversity inclusion at Virginia Tech and that’s taken decades to achieve,” Tillar said. “The landscape has changed dramatically from the ‘60s to the 2000s.”
While Turner was thankful for her time at Virginia Tech, she emphasizes that it wasn’t always easy to attend school at a rather conservative campus.
“Virginia Tech was an excellent school and still is an excellent school,” Turner said. “I have been in support of it over the years, but I cannot deny that there were some tough days there.”