In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month and emphasizing the importance of being prepared for a professional world, LaGuardia Community College (LAGCC) welcomed Angie Cruz on October 31st in the E-building’s Poolside Café. Ms. Cruz, who previously visited the campus in 2017, is an Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, writer of short stories and […]
Fifty years ago in April, a hero amongst men was assassinated. In April ten years ago, a different kind of hero captivated an audience.
Given the auspiciousness of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, a newly rediscovered video recording of Earl Caldwell’s talk at LaGuardia Community College about his coverage of Dr. King’s assassination takes on great relevance amidst the current United States political climate. With society struggling with “fake news,” gun violence, systemic racism, and gender biases, it seems only appropriate to shed light on a first-hand account of an incident that has shaped the history of the United States.
The fan of the over-head projector whizzes into action. The image projected onto the screen slowly comes to life as bolder color and sharper outlines begin to take form. A member of faculty walks up to the laptop from which the speech will be played, and presses the space bar. The image comes to life while sound crackles through the speakers.
On the screen, we see a poised, slightly younger, Professor Victor Rosa take to the podium in Room E-242 of LaGCC. He suppresses his nerves as he introduces the guest speaker. It takes nearly a full five minutes to adequately cover the speaker’s credentials.
The room is silent. Standing room only. The energy is palpable. “Please join me in welcoming to LaGuardia, Mr. Earl Caldwell,” says Professor Rosa with an outstretched hand. The room erupts in applause.
In the video recorded on April 17th, 2008, 40 years after the untimely death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Earl Caldwell, a writer-in-residence at Hampton University, delivers a speech to the staff and students of LaGCC. The presentation was sponsored by The English Department’s Black Literature Committee, The Bridge Student Newspaper, The Web Radio Club, and The College Association.
Notable attendee, former Vice President of Academic Affairs, Peter Katopes, said before Mr. Caldwell began speaking: “Remember, history happens every day, but sometimes you get to really experience a different – a more intense – moment of history. And I think this is one of those days.”
Mr. Caldwell was the first black columnist for a major daily newspaper – The New York Daily News – and was the founding member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He was the leading defendant in the United States v. Caldwell Supreme Court case that established and defined shield laws for reporters in the U.S., a result of his refusal to disclose confidential information regarding his sources at the time – members of the Black Panther Party.
Earl Caldwell was there.
A quick series of flashes from a camera illuminates the revered journalist’s face as he recounts the day of Dr. King’s assassination. He grips the podium in excitement with both hands and shares with the audience his disgust regarding how the investigators handled the case, specifically their obliviousness towards the witnesses that were present.
“In Memphis, there was no investigation. My room faced the crime scene. Nobody ever came to me asking ‘Where were you standing and what did you see,’” Mr. Caldwell states.
Mr. Caldwell, then a national correspondent for The New York Times, tells of the figure he saw in the hedge, the same figure that the cleaning staff remembered seeing. The same figure seen by Harold “Cornbread” Carter, a “hobo” that was present at the incident. Mr. Caldwell states how Mr. Carter came forward to the police and reported the scene that he witnessed. The police dismissed Mr. Carter’s account on the grounds of his not being a trustworthy, upstanding member of society.
“I know…I saw it with my own two eyes,” says Mr. Caldwell while hanging onto the lapel of his jacket. “Not all stories get told!” Despite his presence at the incident, it took 36 rejections from various publishers before his book “Black American Witness: Reports from the Front,” a collection of columns written for The New York Daily News, was finally published in 1994.
He likens his career as a “newspaper man” to that of a runner in a relay race. He is holding the baton, but for the race to continue he must pass it on to the next runner, to the youth. Mr. Caldwell is adamant when he says that the youth are the ones that bring about change. “You don’t see grey hairs in protests,” he says with a charismatic smile, the same smile that belonged to a once younger gentleman that fought for fourth estate rights. When watching videos on the civil rights movement, “you see Martin Luther King Jr. sometimes, but mostly what you see are people who are under twenty years old.”
Dr. King’s stirring calls for action in the late 60’s resulted in a triumph for the humanitarian cause. As with Dr. King’s speeches, Mr. Caldwell’s words fell with great weight and power. It seems evident that his message remains as relevant today as it was then: “We cannot let truths go untold.”