MLK leadership award winner recounts racially-motivated shooting
On April 10, 1968, just six days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Charles Moulden was shot by a white man for fishing in a predominantly white county.
Media coverage of the event was virtually nonexistent; the only account that was published was brief, inaccurate and buried between advertisements on page 23 of the Knoxville News Sentinel.
'He got shot for one reason,' former Sentinel columnist Sam Venable said. "The color of his skin was black.'
Venable, who began working for the Sentinel in 1970, became interested in Moulden's story after hearing 'scattered rumors' about the shooting; a crime that appeared to have gone unpunished.
After sifting through microfilm, hearsay and damaged court records, Venable was finally able to track down Moulden and hear his story firsthand.
'He couldn't believer someone was going to be looking back into this shooting,' Venable said.
Venable would then write an award-winning series of articles entitled 'Fragments of Hate', which were based on Moulden's story and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2014.
Both Venable and Moulden were invited to share their experiences at Lee on Tuesday, Jan. 19 in honor of MLK week. Moulden was recently awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award at a Sevier County memorial ceremony, but he insists his contributions to the cause for equality are comparatively small.
"Honestly, the only thing I did was get in the way of a man's bullet," Moulden said, adding, "If it helps one person to resolve this hatred that they have in their system, then I'll continue to [tell this story] for those who want to listen."
Students, as it turned out, did want to listen, filling a Humanities Building classroom to capacity to hear Moulden and Venable recount the events and aftermath of the shooting in detail.
Venable said he believes the lack of media attention was directly-related to the racial sentiments of the era, as was the 'not guilty' verdict of Fred Ellis, the man who shot Moulden in front of his three white friends at the Tellico River.
"[The shooter] got away with attempted murder and this man had to live with the pain of it," Venable said. "He still carries the bullet in his leg from that day."
Ellis shot Moulden after the young man had ignored his repeated threats to leave the fishing area. He fired two shots, one piercing Moulden's left thigh.
Moulden's friends then struggled to get him to safety, despite their fears of retribution.
"For a white person to attempt to help a black man in a situation like that back then would have gotten him shot," Moulden said. "That's the way things were back then."
Local ambulances refused to make the trip to the forest due to the racial nature of the assault, so Moulden had to be carried over 18 miles of bumpy roads to meet the ambulance in the Tellico Plains area. From there, the journey would take another 40-mile ride to Blount Memorial in Maryville, Tenn.
"That was the hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan at the time," Moulden said. "I was going from the frying pan to the oven."
Fortunately, Moulden's received necessary treatment at the hospital, but forgiveness did not come easily.
Despite Ellis' known 'law-bending' history and the testimony of four eyewitnesses, the two trials ended in a hung jury and an acquittal (the latter agreed upon by an all white jury in just thirty minutes).
"After I left the hospital my real trip started of trying to get over this," Moulden said. "For over a year, if you [were] white I hated what you stood for."
Moulden said that over the years he has come to terms with that violent day, and concluded his speech by sharing personal wisdoms with the students.
"As a whole, we can't take something that one individual has done or what a handful of individuals has done and keep that race as a whole responsible for what those people do," Moulden said.
"I think the whole message of Martin Luther King week is to think of people as individuals instead of a group," he said. "Whether you're black, Islamic, Jewish or whatever, you're an individual."
While Moulden posited that, as a people, we have come a long way in terms of racial equality, he reminded those in attendance that there is still progress to be made.
"There's still a lot of hatred. It's just that it comes in different forms," Moulden said.
Carolyn Dirksen, an English professor and member of Lee's Diversity Committee, cited these different forms of hatred as a reason for bringing in these particular speakers.
"It's so closely related to all the shooting that's happening now," Dirksen said. "We think, 'Oh 1968, the bad ol' days' but it's not really unlike things that are happening today."
For Moulden the message of his story and others like it is simple: "Anything involving hatred is just no good," he said. "If you take anything from all this it's just that love goes a long way."