In the segregated South, black garbage workers stood on the lowest rung of the social order. Martin Luther King Jr. died while lending help to garbage collectors in Memphis, Tennessee who were fighting for equal rights.
King went to Memphis in the spring of 1968. Black sanitation workers had been on strike since February, protesting low wages and miserable working conditions. James Lawson, a long-time civil rights activist and a Memphis minister, asked his friend King to come help. Lawson was leading community efforts to support the striking workers. But negotiations with Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb were stalled. As the strike dragged on, Lawson thought the garbage workers needed backing from a national figure like King.
King's staff at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) did not want him to go to Memphis. They were frantically organizing the Poor People's Campaign. They argued that King had far too much to do already. Memphis would be a distraction.
But King insisted. On March 18, 1968, King spoke to an enormous crowd at the Mason Temple, a Memphis Pentecostal church. It was perhaps the largest meeting space for African Americans in the South. King based part of his speech on the New Testament parable of Dives (pronounced DYE-veez) and Lazarus. King's point was that white Memphians were willfully indifferent to the suffering of the city's black working poor. One day these whites would suffer for their blindness, he warned.
Historian Michael Honey, author of Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign, says the issues in Memphis aligned perfectly with broader themes King was addressing in the Poor People's Campaign. "He came in and gave a speech saying, 'All labor has dignity,'" Honey says. He says King "reminded people, not only in Memphis but all over the country, that it's a crime for people to live in this country and work at starvation wages."
To get middle-class white people in Memphis to see their working poor neighbors, King told his Mason Temple audience to "escalate the struggle a bit." King called for a general work stoppage. "Not a Negro in this city will go to any job downtown," King said. The Mason Temple crowd - estimated at 12-14,000 people - erupted in cheers and foot-stomping.
Protest March Turns Violent
King returned to Memphis a week later to lead a protest march on City Hall. That day, March 28, 1968, turned out to be one of the worst in King's career as a civil rights leader. The marchers paraded down Beale Street, the famed Memphis thoroughfare where musician W.C. Handy pioneered the blues. King was at the head of the column. Then, a number of young African Americans began breaking storefront windows. James Lawson was leading the march with King. When they turned onto Main, Lawson says, they saw "lengths of police in riot gear across the street."
Remembering a violent crackdown by Memphis police during a February protest march, Lawson feared the police would attack again. He recalls telling King, "You must leave. They are going to break up the march and go after you more than anyone." A reluctant King was led away. The marchers turned around. Then, police attacked with tear gas and clubs. Peaceful marchers were caught up in the same violence as youthful looters. One teenager, a suspected looter, was shot to death. Dozens of protestors were injured and nearly 300 black people arrested. Stores in the black section of town got looted and burned. Tear gas drifted across the neighborhood. Journalists captured the debacle on film and broadcast it live on local radio.
National guardsmen and state police riot squads poured into Memphis. King hunkered down with his aides at a local hotel. He was deeply depressed by the events. It was the first time that marchers led by King had become violent.
At the top of King's mind was how the disastrous march would affect the Poor People's Campaign. In a phone conversation with adviser Stanley Levison in New York (wiretapped by the FBI), King gloomily considered calling off the Washington march. "He felt great guilt, as King was wont to do, that somehow he had failed, that it was his fault, that he had let the movement down," Honey says. "He knew also that the FBI and the news media would go on the attack against him as a leader and against the Poor People's Campaign."
The next day, King faced sharp questions from reporters about whether he would be able to keep a protest in Washington by thousands of poor people peaceful. King responded that black people were not automatically given to nonviolence. They were willing to observe "tactical nonviolence," he said, when they were part of a well-disciplined march led by seasoned leaders of nonviolent protests. King vowed that the SCLC had the experience and the staff to keep the Poor People's Campaign nonviolent.
In the press conference, King denied charges that he abandoned the Memphis march when the going got rough. Reporters pressed him to predict whether the coming summer would see more violence in urban ghettos.
After the press conference King was still despondent. He told Levison about meeting some of the rebellious young militants who took part in the Memphis melee and said that he was thinking of going on a Gandhi-style fast to unify the movement. For the Washington march to go forward, King said, he would have to return to Memphis and prove again that he could lead a nonviolent protest.
A Test for Nonviolence
King was back in Memphis six days later to lead a second march. Memphis city officials asked a federal judge to issue an injunction blocking him. King spent the better part of the day, April 3, 1968, meeting with aides and local organizers at the Lorraine Motel, where he was staying. He was exhausted and feeling ill. A mass meeting was planned that night at the Mason Temple. A heavy storm rumbled in and threatened to keep people home. King didn't feel like speaking, especially if the crowd was smaller than before, so he sent his second-in-command, Ralph Abernathy, in his place.
Abernathy telephoned King from the Mason Temple to say that he should come. Though the crowd was smaller than it had been two weeks earlier, there were a lot of reporters. Everyone wanted to hear from King. The storm rattled windows and rain beat down on the metal roof of the Mason Temple as King stepped to the podium. Marshalling the full power of his Baptist preacher's voice, King vowed that the Memphis movement would go forward. He declared that the second march would proceed in spite of the court injunction.
The speech King gave that night, the last of his life, became one of the most iconic in his long and accomplished speaking career. Many listeners were struck in hindsight by the way King talked about his own mortality on the eve of his assassination. "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life," King preached to the crowd. "Longevity has its place," he said, and continued:
But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land.
Listen to an extended excerpt:
Andrew Young, King's executive assistant, says the references to death did not surprise him or King's other associates. "Most of it we'd heard before," Young says. In a way, King was reassuring himself by talking openly about the threats against him (that morning, King's plane from Atlanta had been delayed by a bomb threat; no explosive was found). "He preached himself through his nervousness," Young says. "Preaching was the way he affirmed his faith."
The Last Day
King spent April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel. He sent Andrew Young down to the federal courthouse to fight the injunction against a second march. Meanwhile, King huddled with other SCLC officials to plan strategy. He shared a plate of fried Mississippi River catfish with Ralph Abernathy.
In the late afternoon, Young returned from court with news that the Monday march could go forward. King pretended to be sore that Young had failed to call him all day. "He began to sort of playfully fuss with me," Young says. "He picked up a pillow and threw it at me. And I just threw it back. And all of a sudden everybody picked up pillows. And here we are - middle aged men, almost - and we were having a pillow fight like children."
When the rumpus subsided, King and the others got ready to go to dinner at a local minister's house. King stood on the motel balcony as Jesse Jackson and other organizers got out of a car below. King called down to a young musician who would be playing saxophone at a mass meeting planned for that night. He asked him to play a favorite gospel song, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand."
As King wondered aloud whether he needed a topcoat, there was a sharp sound. Some thought it was a firecracker, or a car backfiring. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot in the face. He died shortly afterwards at a hospital.
More than 100 American cities exploded in violence when King was assassinated. Most of the bullets and firebombs fell in urban black neighborhoods. Some 65,000 troops got called up for riot duty. Thirty-nine people died and tens of thousands were arrested, most of them African Americans.
On April 8, a second civil rights march was finally held in Memphis. This one was peaceful. It was a memorial march. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and three of their four children led 20,000 people through downtown Memphis. She later told the crowd that her husband had lived a "redemptive life" and had died for what he believed in - a nation transformed into a society of love, justice, peace and brotherhood. She urged the marchers to carry on the cause for justice and nonviolence. With the Easter weekend coming, Mrs. King spoke in terms of resurrection.
The funeral for Martin Luther King Jr. was held the next day, April 9, in Atlanta. His old friend, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, conducted the service at King's home church, Ebenezer Baptist. Civil rights leaders, entertainers, and four presidential candidates attended the service. Some 60,000 people listened on loudspeakers outside, then joined in the funeral procession. A second service was held at King's alma mater, Morehouse College. School President Benjamin Mays gave the eulogy. He said God had called on King to teach the nation and the world about humanity and nonviolence.
Mays then called on the nation to calm its violent reaction to King's death. "If we love Martin Luther King Jr., and respect him, as this crowd surely testifies, let us see to it that he did not die in vain; Let us see to it that we do not dishonor his name by trying to solve our problems through rioting in the streets. Violence was foreign to his nature," Mays said.
King was buried in his Atlanta neighborhood near Ebenezer Baptist Church. A wooden farm wagon, pulled by mules, carried his casket to the cemetery to symbolize King's dedication to the lives and the rights of poor people.
Back to King's Last March.