“I’ve been to the mountaintop!”

Today (April 4, 2018) is the fifty year anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was to lead a march with striking city garbage workers.  The march had originally been scheduled for March 22,1968, but Mother Nature had dumped eighteen inches of snow on the city, so the protest was now moved to March 28.   That day, when the marchers left Claiborne Temple, the protest was peaceful, but by the time King and the front row reached Beale and Main Street, violence had broken out among young men, who were looting business and smashing windows further to the rear, resulting in the police stopping the protest.  James Lawson, who had organized the march,  saw to  Dr. King leaving the march and going to a place of safety.    King was depressed for this was the first march that he had led that wasn’t non violent. (Sides, 101-109)  He promised the local organizers he would led another march on April 4.

The  men who worked for the city of Memphis picking citizens’ garbage were mostly black and belonged to the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Union.  On February 1, 1968, two workers – Echol Cole and Robert Walker  – died in an accident in one of Memphis’ outmoded garbage trucks.  On Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12, workers in the sanitation crews and the sewage and drainage section of the Department of Public Works didn’t show up for work.  They were on strike. Unions were not popular in the South and Henry Loeb did not plan on being the first mayor of Memphis to recognize a union.  Two years earlier, the city had gone to court and gotten an injunction (that was still in force) that prevented union members  from striking, although they could quit their jobs.  (Honey, pp. 98-127.)

Martin Luther King was in the middle of his Poor People’s Campaign in California when he received a call from Rev. James  Lawson, pastor of  Centenary Methodist Church  in Memphis and an old alley of King, asking him to come and  lead a march protesting Memphis’ treatment of the city’s  garbage workers.  Lawson was active in support of the labor action, leading black clergy and founding a group called COME (Community on the Move for Equality), which organized a boycott of downtown businesses. (Garrow,  605)

The city of Memphis had just changed from the commission form of government to the Mayor/Council style as of January 1, 1968.   When strikers realized they  couldn’t get anywhere with Mayor Henry Loeb, they started flooding the council meetings, with Lawson and other black clergy speaking for them.   Three members of the City Council were black and belonged to the Democratic Party.  The other nine members white and were Republicans.   Forty percent of the city’s population were black and lived in the inner city.  The other sixty per cent, the whites, mostly resided  in the  suburbs.  The strike divided the city both politically and racially.

While James Lawson and Dr. King were discussing what went wrong with the violent tinged march in Memphis, a man the nation, and for that matter the world, would soon know  as James Earl Ray was in Birmingham buying a rifle.  He told the salesman he needed a heavy rifle because he was hunting big game.  On the evening of April 3, Ray, using the alias Eric Galt, checked into a motel on the southeast side of Memphis.    The next day, he headed downtown, where he hoped to find a rooming house on the east side Main Street with windows facing the Lorraine Motel on Second Street, where the Commercial Appeal newspaper told Ray Dr. King was staying. (Sides, pp. 110-120)

King returned to Memphis on April 3, where he was served with a federal injunction, which he was going to disobey, forbidding him to lead the march the next day.  That night, despite the Weather Service’s storm warnings, he delivered a sermon at a filled-to-capacity  Mason Temple in South Memphis.  He concluded with these words, in which some think he was having a  premonition about his death:

” Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” (Honey, pp. 423-24.)

Early the next morning, King and his aides were discussing with Andrew Young the hearing in Federal Court on the injunction.  Young and a local lawyer, Lucius Burch, were to represent King, who would not attend the hearing.  Dr. King spent the day making phone calls and enjoying fellowship with his long time friend Ralph Abernathy.  Late in the afternoon, Andrew Young brought good news from the hearing, the injunction had been lifted with some limitations.  The march was set for Monday,  April 8.

While King, Young, and Abernathy were celebrating their victory in court at the motel, James Earl Ray was watching from the back windows of a Main Street boarding house.  Since renting a room, he had purchased a scope from a nearby sporting goods store and had determined the bathroom, down the hall  from his room, was the best place to draw a bead on Dr. King.  The scope made it seem like the balcony at Lorraine Motel was only thirty feet away.

Billy Kyles, a local preacher, had invited King and his entourage to dinner at his house, where his wife was cooking a soul food feast.   It was after 5:30 and Reverend Kyles was urging King and Abernathy to get ready for dinner.  It was almost six when Martin Luther King, Jr. stepped out of Room 306 onto the balcony.  In the meantime, James Earl Ray had gotten the gun from his room and locked himself in the bathroom.  On the balcony, King was talking to a musician who going to play the Mason Temple later that evening.  In the bathroom Ray pulled the trigger.  The bullet hit King in the throat, driving him backwards; he was lying on his back when Ralph Abernathy found him, still breathing at 6:02.

The scene at the Lorraine Motel was chaos.  Firemen and police arrived from the nearby fire station and also an ambulance to take Dr. King to St. Joseph Hospital, where doctors worked on him for an hour, until he was declared death at 7:05 .   In East Memphis, my wife, who was the resident manager of our apartment complex, told the maintenance staff, who were all black, they could spend the night in a vacant unit because they were scared to go home.   As soon as word got out, rioting started in the inner city (and for that matter 124 cities in the nation) and the National Guard was dispatched.  (Sides, pp. 144-216)

On Monday, April 8, the march that was already planned took place as a memorial to Dr. King.   Those taking part followed Coretta King and three of the four King children on silent march to the Memphis City Hall.  The marchers passed National Guardsmen with their bayonets backed by  tanks and personnel carriers.  Another huge crowd attended Dr. King’s funeral in  Atlanta the next day.

Atlanta was where Ray (Galt) went after he killed King.  From there he went to Canada where he got a passport under an another false name and flew to London.  Ray was apprehended when he tried to fly to the continent on June 8, 1968.  He was returned to the United States, where he stood trial in Memphis, was found guilty, and sentenced to life to be served at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in east Tennessee.  Later Ray recanted his confession and tried unsuccessfully to get a new trial.  He died in 1998 at seventy.  (Sides, pp. 301-397, passing)

For further reading:

Taylor Branch.  Parting the Waters:   America in the King Years, 1954-63.  1989.

Taylor Branch.  Pillar of Fire:  America in the King Years, 1963-65. 1998.

Taylor Branch.  At Canaan’s Edge:  America in the King Years, 1965-68.  2006.

David J. Garrow.  Bearing  the Cross:  Martin Luther King, Jr, and the Southern Christian Leadership  Conference.  1986.

Michael K. Honey.  Going Down Jericho Road:  The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign.  2007

Hampton Sides. Hellhound on His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History. 2010