Carole Simpson on the Major Moments of 1968 1968 was a pivotal year for America. The war in Vietnam was escalating. Two major assassinations shocked the nation, and civil unrest spread in cities across the country. Farai Chideya talks with Emmy Award-winning journalist and educator Carole Simpson about the events that shaped the year.
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Carole Simpson on the Major Moments of 1968

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Carole Simpson on the Major Moments of 1968

Carole Simpson on the Major Moments of 1968

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President LYNDON B. JOHNSON: And I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.

Unidentified Man #1: Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

(Soundbite of screaming)

Unidentified Man #2: Senator Kennedy has been shot, and another...

Unidentified Person: (Unintelligible) now, we are ready start, we're going to finish it up.

(Soundbite of siren)

Unidentified Man #3: Gentlemen, get the thing straight once and for all. The policeman isn't there to create disorder. The policeman is there to preserve disorder.

CHIDEYA: 1968 was a pivotal year for America. The war in Vietnam was escalating, Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and civil unrest spread to cities across the nation. All these events made '68 the year to remember, especially for young reporters covering the news.

Carole Simpson was just starting her career as a radio journalist. Today on the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we're looking at some of the major stories that shaped that year. Joining us to share some of her memories is the now-veteran journalist, Carole Simpson. Carole, welcome.

Ms. CAROLE SIMPSON (Journalist): Good to talk to you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: It's always great to talk to you. So this week marks the anniversary of the assassination. Friday is the exact anniversary. If you go back in time, you were just getting your legs as a reporter in Chicago. What was it like, first of all, being a black reporter in America at that time?

Ms. SIMPSON: Well, I have to tell you that I was one of the first black reporters in Chicago. There might have been a total of 10 of us, perhaps, at four major newspapers, three major television stations, and three or four big radio stations. So it was - we were an oddity, first of all, to be seen out reporting on things.

I can remember people having heard me on the radio and seeing me in person and going, you're not Carole Simpson, are you? And I said yes, and they're going, but you don't sound colored. We thought you were white, and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: I'm sure you did.

Ms. SIMPSON: So I was kind of - and I was one of the first women on the air, so people recognized my voice. But getting back to 1968, it's the scariest year I have spent in a career that has lasted more than 40 years. It was the most frightening time in this country. It's hard to describe. Listening to the soundbites that you had of Dr. King and of Lyndon B. Johnson stepping down as president, and all of these sounds just bring all of this back to me. It's as if it were yesterday, and it was scary.

CHIDEYA: Well, yeah, there was so much going on, the Tet Offensive...

Ms. SIMPSON: The war, the anti-war protests were, you know, at a fever pitch. The civil rights demonstrations, Dr. King had denounced the Vietnam War and was planning his poor people's campaign. There were rich against poor, young against old, black against white. It felt like the country was tearing apart.

And then when you have the assassination of Dr. King, and then shortly thereafter the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, and then I covered the Chicago Democratic convention, where there was a police riot, what was later described as a police riot, where demonstrators were beaten, and I was among the group of reporters in Lincoln Park that were chased by the police.

The police turned on reporters while we were trying to cover their actions against the demonstrators and ended up getting hurt during that melee. And then the Weather Underground, the Students for a Democratic Society, went through the streets of Chicago smashing downtown windows and that kind of thing. Ten people were killed during the riots that followed Dr. King's assassination in Chicago.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me...

Ms. SIMPSON: I'm sorry. I just wanted to say that I heard Mayor Daley talking, and he was the one who said during those riots, shoot to kill arsonists and shoot to maim looters. Which just sent the city in an uproar.

CHIDEYA: I wanted to ask you where exactly you were when you heard the news that Dr. King had been assassinated.

Ms. SIMPSON: I was working at WCFL Radio in Chicago, and it was 6:00 o'clock and my husband had picked me up from work, we had one car, and he would leave work and pick me up, and we were on our way home when we heard a bulletin on the radio saying that Dr. King had been shot. At that time we didn't know if he was dead or not.

So I immediately got out of the car - we didn't have cell phones, so you had to find a telephone booth - and I called my office and said where do you want me, what do you want me to do? Do you want me to come back in? And they said no, we want you to go to the West Side of Chicago, which is where Dr. King had brought his Campaign for Fair Housing to Chicago. Go to the West Side and see what's happening around there.

So we drove to Lawndale in Chicago, and people were out in the streets. The burning and that kind of stuff had not begun yet, but I saw that they were gathering at a big church, and the anger and the tears and the crying. So I reported on the reaction on the West Side, where Dr. King had been, and it was - you knew something bad was going to happen. I mean, people were really, really angry.

CHIDEYA: Were you - you know, so often as reporters you have to put your own emotions aside, at least in the short term, but how did you feel personally?

Ms. SIMPSON: I felt terrible personally, because Dr. King gave - helped me make a name for myself in Chicago. When he brought his campaign to Chicago, I staked out his hotel room all night long. I was trying to get the story, trying to get a scoop, and he actually told me, three hours before he had a news conference, that he was in Chicago to challenge Mayor Richard J. Daley and the city's policy on fair housing.

So I was able to get on the air, and it was like the Chicago Tribune and CBS and ABC, they were like who's this little reporter? Who's this woman reporter? And I had the scoop. And so my name I owe, I think, a good part of my career to his helping my name get out in public by being the reporter that scooped the city of Chicago on that story.

So I knew him, and I had walked with him on the West Side of Chicago, and - but you know, when you're a reporter, as sad as I was to hear that he had been shot and was dead, you go on auto-pilot. Your job is to report the news to the public that wants it and needs it and should hear it.

So you go on auto pilot and you do your job, and then by the time I got home at 2:00 or 3:00 o'clock that morning I just broke down in tears. I hadn't been able to cry because I had to keep working.

CHIDEYA: Well, Carole, I can't tell you how great it is to talk to you, and certainly we'd like to keep the conversation going sometime soon. Thank you for sharing this with us.

Ms. SIMPSON: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Journalist Carole Simpson, she is working on an as-of-yet untitled tell-all memoir, and we're certainly looking forward to that.

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