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Truro woman remembers the day Martin Luther King was shot

Jeanette Paris was a high-schooler in Boston when Martin Luther King was shot on April 4, 1968. Today she lives in Truro.
Jeanette Paris was a high-schooler in Boston when Martin Luther King was shot on April 4, 1968. Today she lives in Truro. - Fram Dinshaw
TRURO, N.S. —

The tears still flow, 50 years later.

They flowed as Jeanette Paris recalled how she joined classmates marching down Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead in Memphis.

“He was taken too soon,” said Paris, weeping. “It was my duty. It was out of respect. He was our leader. He was murdered in the streets.”

Born to an African Nova Scotian family in Truro, Paris moved to Boston in 1953, at just three years old.

Despite widespread prejudice faced by black people in the United States, Paris’s parents felt their children would enjoy a better education in Boston.

Paris grew up in the projects of Boston, a mixed working-class community of African Americans rubbing shoulders with Polish, Irish and Greek immigrants.

“There was a mix,” she recalled. “We were a family, you know what I mean?”

Outside the projects, however, the Civil Rights Movement began as African Americans launched peaceful protests against racial segregation in the Deep South.

There was no formal segregation of schools, public spaces or transportation systems in Boston, but racial tensions still simmered between whites and blacks in New England.

As a black person, it was expected that Paris would attend either the local girls’ high school or a trade school after she completed primary education.

However, her parents instead sent her to another, white-majority high school that offered the college credits she would need to pursue her post-secondary education.

There, she encountered racial prejudice and hostility from both her fellow students and teachers, before her family transferred her to Brighton High School in another part of town.

Even back home in the projects, tensions periodically flared up between whites and blacks.

“I had kids call me (the n-word) when I was little and we took care of them,” said Paris. “We beat them.”

All the while, the Civil Rights Movement gathered steam, with successful boycotts against segregation on buses in Alabama and the 1963 Million Man March, where King made his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech.  

Paris also saw the rise of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, more radical leaders than King.

While she attended some of their rallies, Paris still preferred King’s non-violent approach toward tackling racial injustice.

“We were not involved but we were aware – we knew who he was,” Paris said.

She recalled how some liberal whites were drawn to King’s banner during her time at Brighton High.

After his assassination, a number of whites joined their black classmates in staging a peaceful walkout, staying with them as they marched toward a line of buses on Commonwealth Avenue. Paris’s protest was peaceful, but King’s death sparked riots in many cities.

Many retained their prejudices, even after successes of the Civil Rights Movement.

“I was right in my first year of college,” said Paris. “I was working and got laid off. I went down to the unemployment office and this lady, she denied me my money. I didn’t understand. It was surprising for her for me to be in college.”

Paris overcame the prejudice and stayed in Boston until 2012, working in jobs from Boston Financial to Delta Airlines.

She maintained her links to Truro, visiting her father regularly after he moved back in 1989. Paris returned permanently seven years ago.

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