The Palm Sunday assembly on the lawn of City Hall had a somber tone to match the national mood of heartache and fear.

Three days earlier, an assassin had taken the life of the nation’s pre-eminent civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. American cities erupted in riots.

St. Joseph residents dodged the violence, but the 500 people at the Civic Center Park memorial service could not escape the disquiet.

“The United States will destroy ignorance,” Kelsy Beshears said that day, “or ignorance will destroy the United States.”

James Earl Ray gunned down King in Memphis, Tennessee, 50 years ago today. Sanitation workers had been on strike in the city, and the Nobel Peace Prize winner had gone there to support their cause.

Beshears, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, got credit for appealing for peace in her hometown.

At the memorial service, she urged those listening to “see if the ties that bind us are not deeper than those that separate us.”

Bob Waldrop, a reporter for the St. Joseph Gazette, covered the city as it dealt with the aftermath of the Memphis killing.

“There may have been some protests and maybe a little marching. But as far as I can recall, there was no violence or police actions or anything like that,” the former newsman said Tuesday. “Mostly thanks to Kelsy Beshears, I think.”

A “mourners’ march” preceded the memorial service, about 70 people parading to the park from 16th and Messanie streets.

An interdenominational faith group planned the service. At the same time, the St. Joseph units of the Air National Guard and the Army National Guard got ordered into standby alert in case the disturbances in other cities found their way to St. Joseph.

Col. Wilby W. Lee, commander of the 139th Air Transport Group at Rosecrans Memorial Airport, said the C-97 cargo planes there also stood ready to take guardsmen to other cities in the state or around the nation if needed.

Dr. Ernest White, minister of the Wyatt Park Baptist Church, praised King during the memorial service.

“From among us as ministers of the gospel, we have lost a rare specimen of a man with courage to match conviction,” he said. “We can not carry his body to the promised land but we can take his spirit and his children there.”

At Missouri Western State University, Latoya Fitzpatrick directs the Center for Multicultural Education. She said lessons of understanding, as espoused by King, resonate five decades after his death.

“We all have these things that make us different. And it’s easy to point out how you are different from me,” she said. “But it’s a little harder to sit down and have a conversation and find out how you are similar to the person sitting across from you.”

Ken Newton can be reached at ken.newton@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPNewton.