An important anniversary

Proud GRPS Alumni recalls poem about MLK, the moment he grew up 
Marshall Purnell reads a poem he wrote about Dr. King. Grand Rapids Press archive photo.

April is National Poetry Month and tomorrow marks 55 years since the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, a day of particular significance for Grand Rapids native, Marshall Purnell.

Just before MLK Day in January of this year, Grand Rapids Public Schools circulated a video interview of the prominent alumni, an architect by trade. Purnell earned a Bachelor of Science in Architecture & Urban Planning, and a Master of Architecture from the University of Michigan before going on to teach design at the University of Maryland. He eventually became a partner at the firm Devrouax and Purnell Architects and Planners, PC in Washington D.C.

As the Design Principal of Devrouax & Purnell Architects Planners, some of the projects Purnell helped spearhead include (and this list is by no means exhaustive):  the $850 million Washington Convention Center, the $700 million Washington Nationals Baseball Park and the Washington NBA and NHL venue Verizon Center.

A notable highlight of the 1968 Ottawa Hills High School graduate’s career is his appointment as the first African American architect to serve as the national president of the American Institute of Architects. He’s given countless lectures around the world and is the author of at least two books.

He described his most rewarding project as a designer in the emotional GRPS interview: working on the Martin Luther King memorial.

“I just couldn’t believe they were paying me to do it,” he said, and recalled a sequence of events when he was 17 years old that changed his life.

“I was in high school when he died, April 4, 1968, I was in English Class. He died on a Thursday,” said Purnell referring to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

“The assignment for Friday was to have written a memory selection, you know, a poem. You had to write an original poem.

“That night I wrote this poem through my tears,” said Purnell. He went in to English class the next day and recited it.

Some lines from the poem include:

“He died today, yes he died today,

Yes, for you and me he died

Now I have a dream, as glorious as his,

That American has at last opened its eyes.

Oh God, let us believe in this dream.

More important, let us make it come about”

The poem concludes with:

“For in this dream I visioned the sands of time,

And time has just about run out.

The king is dead.

Long live the king.”

The teacher was impressed.

There was a march scheduled in downtown Grand Rapids that weekend.

“Thousands of people in the street , and I was asked to read my poem that I wrote,” Purnell told the interviewer.

“And when the Sunday paper came out showing this picture of the whole event, I was the one on stage at the mic. And they had reprinted, I think, three or four of the stanzas that I wrote in my poem,” Purnell said.

The son of professional jazz saxophonist Curtis Purnell, Marshall turned his attention to sports in high school and helped his team win the state championship as a point guard on the Bengals basketball team.

When his photo appeared in the Grand Rapids Press on Sunday, April 7, 1968, the caption beneath the photo read: “Ottawa Hills Athlete Marshall Purnell Reads His Tribute to Dr. King.”

“I tell people that’s the day…that I grew up,” Purnell said. “That’s the day that I understood the power of the spoken word. That gave me the confidence when I went to college to not have to worry about coming back, getting a job…I knew that I could make it in this world.

“I’m a proud GRPS alumni because it gave me a basis for success.”



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