This originally ran in Get Underground in January, 2003.
Martin Luther King, Jr. packed a lot into a short life.
King was just 26 when he became the spokesman for the Montgomery bus boycott (during which time his house was firebombed) in 1956. He founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. In 1960, he was arrested at a Greensboro, North Carolina sit-in, one of thirty times he was arrested in pursuit of justice. The next year, influenced by King’s work with the Freedom Riders, the Interstate Commerce Commission banned segregation in interstate travel. In 1963, King was incarcerated for protesting discrimination in Birmingham, Alabama and wrote the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Later that year, he gave the “I Have a Dream" speech. At the end of 1964, King became the youngest person to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, and the following year, he led a march in support of voting rights from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, across the Pettus Bridge, in defiance of state troopers who’d terrorized demonstrators on an earlier march across the bridge.
By early 1967, it had become obvious that equality under the law (as codified in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act) couldn't begin to compensate for the centuries of oppression and humiliation blacks had endured through slavery and Jim Crow. A grinding poverty pervaded America’s inner cities, which had erupted in riots over the past three years.
Many Americans felt that the U.S. was spending too much money on guns (the escalation of the Vietnam War) and not enough on butter (domestic programs). In April 1967, King gave one of his most famous speeches, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam.” The next month, at an SCLC retreat, King and his colleagues decided to focus their energies on an Economic Bill of Rights which would shift government money from the futile Vietnam War effort toward economically-disadvantaged Americans of all races through full employment, low-income housing, and other anti-poverty programs. This movement became known as the “Poor People’s Campaign,” and would eventually draw King to Memphis in 1968.
The trouble in Memphis had started at the end of January. According to the Memphis History website:
"On January 30, 1968, 21 [black] workers were sent home without pay because of the rain. When the rain let up an hour later, white employees were still on the clock and worked all day for pay. This caused a furor among the men and T. O. Jones [a former sanitation worker and president of the AFSCME Local] took up the issue with the new Directory of Public Works, Charles Blackburn.
….Two days later, the first day of February, two sanitation employees - Echol Cole, 35, and Robert Walker, 29 - were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck. They were inside the truck trying to escape a driving rain long enough to eat their lunch. Work rules in the Sanitation Department called for workers to clock out when it rained. Meanwhile the predominantly white supervisory and administrative staffs were allowed to continue working for pay. Both of the dead men were relatively new to the job. Neither man had a life insurance policy."
A few days after these incidents, on February 4, King gave his "Drum Major Instinct" sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. In that speech, he said*:
Every now and then I guess we all think realistically (Yes, sir) about that day when we will be victimized with what is life's final common denominator—that something that we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don't think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, "What is it that I would want said?"….
I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others. (Yes) (*audience responses in parentheses)
I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. (Amen)
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. (Yes)
And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. (Yes)
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. (Lord)
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. (Yes)
Before long, King would go on his last mission.
Back in Memphis, the deaths of Cole and Walker galvanized the city’s 1,300 sanitation workers, most of whom were black, “received virtually no health care benefits, pensions, or vacations, worked in filthy conditions, and lacked such simple amenities as a place to eat and shower.” The workers went on strike February 12, demanding better wages (many of them lived at the poverty level despite working full-time), more humane working conditions, and recognition of their union by the city of Memphis, a cause they’d been fighting for since 1963.
On February 23, the City Council refused to accept the workers' terms. The next day, demonstrators marched to City Hall. Along the way, they were beset by police with Mace and teargas. In response, black ministers banded together to organize daily demonstrations and boycotts of local businesses which had discriminatory practices.
After weeks of escalating protests (and racial tension) fueled by the recalcitrance of the City Council and white Republican Mayor Henry Loeb, Martin Luther King, Jr. was called to Memphis. On March 18, he spoke to a crowd of 15,000, urging them to commit acts of civil disobedience, to effectively cripple the city into doing the right thing.
A major march was scheduled for March 22, but was pushed back to March 28 due to a snowstorm. King led the March 28 march through downtown Memphis. According to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford:
"Memphis city officials estimated that 22,000 students skipped school that day to participate in the demonstration. King arrived late and found a massive crowd on the brink of chaos. Lawson and King led the march together but quickly called off the demonstration as violence began to erupt. King was whisked away to a nearby hotel, and Lawson told the mass of people to turn around and go back to the church. In the chaos that followed, downtown shops were looted, and a 16-year-old was shot and killed by a policeman. Police followed demonstrators back to the Clayborn Temple, entered the church, released tear gas inside the sanctuary, and clubbed people as they lay on the floor to get fresh air.
[Mayor] Loeb called for martial law and brought in 4,000 National Guard troops. The following day, over 200 striking workers continued their daily march, carrying signs that read, 'I Am a Man.'"
King was blamed for the violence and mayhem by local mainstream media, who were white-owned and in cahoots with the police and the FBI (which had hounded King for years and were swarming Memphis). Unbowed, King scheduled a second march for Monday, April 8.
The city of Memphis filed an injunction, claiming concern about civil disorder - and King’s safety. City Attorney Frank Gianotti said, “We are fearful that in the turmoil of the moment someone may even harm Dr. King’s life…we don’t want that to happen.”
“We are not going to be stopped by Mace or injunctions.”
On the evening of April 3, King was scheduled to speak at the Mason Temple church, but he felt under the weather. King's good friend Ralph Abernathy took his place, while he recuperated at the Lorraine Motel.
But once Abernathy was at the church, and witnessed the size of the crowd, the energy in the room, King was called and asked to make an appearance.
King began the "Mountaintop" speech by posing a question:
If I were standing at the beginning of time with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?"
Following a tour of Moses leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt through the great philosophers of ancient Greece, the Roman empire, the Renaissance, Lincoln, and FDR, King said “I would turn to the Almighty and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy,’” and tied the theme of human liberation into the many boiling social movements of 1968:
Something is happening in our world. (Yeah) The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee, the cry is always the same: "We want to be free." (Applause)
Once the big picture was established, King brought things around to Memphis, 1968, and asserted his bedrock belief in non-violence:
We don't have to argue with anybody. We don't have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don't need any bricks and bottles; we don't need any Molotov cocktails.
The moral imperative of unity and self-sacrifice on behalf of the sanitation workers was connected with the road to Jericho parable, and our duty to one another:
And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me? (All right) But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?" That's the question before you tonight. (Yes) Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?" Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?" (Yes) The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" The question is, "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question. (Applause)
The speech’s powerful closing was eerily prophetic:
It really doesn't matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane–there were six of us–the pilot said over the public address system: "We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane." And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we've had the plane protected and guarded all night.
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out (Yeah), or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers.
Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. (Amen) But it really doesn't matter to me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. (Yeah)(Applause) And I don't mind. (Applause continues) Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. (Yeah) And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. (Go ahead) And I've looked over (Yes sir), and I've seen the Promised Land. (Go ahead) I may not get there with you. (Go ahead) But I want you to know tonight (Yes), that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. (Applause) (Go ahead, Go ahead) And so 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. (Applause)
During a speech ten years later, civil rights activist Benjamin Hooks said, "I remember that night when he [Martin Luther King, Jr.] finished, he stopped by quoting the words of that song that he loved so well, 'Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.' He never finished. He wheeled around and took his seat and to my surprise, when I got a little closer, I saw tears streaming down his face. Grown men were sitting there weeping openly because of the power of this man who spoke on that night."
The next day, April 4, 1968, King’s lawyers appeared before a judge to challenge the city of Memphis' injunction. According to Andrew Young, who later became the mayor of Atlanta, King was "surrounded by his brother, his staff and close friends of the movement...he laughed and joked all day until it was time to go to dinner at 6 p.m."
Just before leaving, King went outside to check the weather for proper attire, and was gunned down at the age of 39.
On April 16, after riots and pressure from state and federal officials, a deal was finally worked out between the sanitation workers and the city of Memphis, which agreed to most of the workers' demands.
Forty-two years later, I walked through a hot, sticky Memphis day to the Lorraine Motel.
Over a long weekend in Memphis, I saw Graceland, the Stax Museum, and the Rock 'n' Soul Museum. I ate divine pulled pork and fried chicken, caught live music, took in beautiful old architecture, and attended a friend's wedding on the Mississippi River.
But this was the capstone of my trip, an event, a place, that had been in my thoughts and in my soul for years.
When I arrived at the hotel and looked up at the balcony, I sat down and teared up for several minutes. After a spell, I got on my feet and looked around.
In the parking lot was this headstone
which faces the balcony where King stood when he was assassinated:
Also in the parking lot, for authenticity's sake, are vintage automobiles, here seen up close,
Here from further back,
And further yet:
Across the street from the Lorraine Motel are carved perhaps the most famous words from the "Mountaintop" speech:
The Lorraine Motel could have become just an assassination shrine, a spot to grieve and leave - like a cemetery - but thankfully Memphis philanthropists reached into their pockets to create the National Civil Rights Museum from the ashes of one of the most horrible events in American history.
Inside are audiovisual displays that give a thorough history of the civil rights movement, from slavery to freedom to Jim Crow to Rosa Parks, the lunch counter sit-ins, all the way through to the present.
As slow as the pace of social progress can seem, the undeniable forward motion in these displays remind us of Dr. King's oft-used phrase "the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice."