Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Sala Udin a Life on the Hill Chapter 6 Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary Sala Continued to Shuttle between Mississippi and Pittsburgh until the Events of a Day in Late September 1970 in Jackson, Miss

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Sala Udin a Life on the Hill Chapter 6 Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary Sala Continued to Shuttle between Mississippi and Pittsburgh until the Events of a Day in Late September 1970 in Jackson, Miss

Article excerpt

In the spring of 1968, two men drove past Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle, crossed the Fort Pitt Bridge and entered the dimly lit, mile-long tunnel at the bridge's southern end.

The evening was young, the mood in the car upbeat. Sam Howze and his pal Alvin Poussaint laughed and reminisced about their experiences as civil rights workers in Mississippi. Radio music floated low and in the background. Otis Redding's melancholy "Sittin' On the Dock of the Bay" topped the charts. Aretha sang "Chain of Fools."

Sam was no longer the naive kid stepping off a bus in a small Mississippi town. He'd become militant, leaned toward his African roots, wore dashikis instead of farmer's overalls, rejected Christianity and studied Islam, questioned integration and backed Black Power. In fact, he was no longer Sam. He'd become Sala. Sala Udin.

As Sala and Alvin barreled along the parkway, a radio announcer came on, speaking in an urgent tone. "What was that about Dr. King?" they wondered, suddenly concerned.

Turn it up, turn it up.

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Aala was 25 and following the shifting front lines of the civil rights movement as it moved north and into urban communities shackled to poverty, denied jobs and decent housing. Detroit, Newark, Minneapolis, Milwaukee - they'd all exploded in the summer of '67. So far, Pittsburgh had remained relatively calm, but it was a big city with big problems. The place needed experienced organizers.

So Sala became a man of two worlds, still working in Mississippi but frequently making the daylong drive to the city of his birth.

Alvin, a doctor who was well-known for providing medical care to civil rights workers in Mississippi and helping to integrate Southern health care facilities, had come to Pittsburgh on April 4 to talk to Pitt students and organizers.

As Alvin wrapped up his talk and said his goodbyes, Sala prepared to drive him to the airport.

Around that time, 800 miles distant, a loud and explosive report echoed through a motel courtyard in Memphis, Tenn. It was not, as some people thought at the time, the backfiring of an automobile.

A man standing on the motel's second-story balcony fell backward, his face torn by a soft-point, metal-jacketed bullet traveling at high velocity. The bullet entered near the man's chin, passed through his neck, ripped arteries and fractured his spine.

Friends rushed to the man, his blood now pooling on the concrete. Someone called an ambulance. Police arrived within seconds.

News of the shooting traveled quickly, bulletins racing across wires, announcers breaking into scheduled programming, making special announcements.

"Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been shot and wounded," one radio voice said, "possibly critically wounded, in Memphis, Tennessee, this evening."

------------

News of King's shooting stunned Sala and Alvin, now nearing Pittsburgh's airport. Five years earlier, King had stepped up to a microphone on the Washington Mall and delivered a speech that changed the direction of Sala's life. King remained a central part of the larger civil rights struggle and Sala admired him greatly.

Sala pulled to the side of the road. There, he and his friend wept.

They were back on the road within moments. Alvin wanted to return to his family as quickly as possible.

At the airport, Sala heard whispers - "Did you hear what happened?" An African-American janitor leaned against his broom, tears streaming down his face.

Sala was anxious to return to the Hill District, already roiling with the same frustration and anger that had expressed itself so violently in other cities. Was Pittsburgh next?

In the hours after King's death, it seemed not. Sala returned to a relatively calm city. A few crowds gathered on street corners, but no problems emerged.

The next day, tension grew thick inside city schools. …

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