Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Cause: Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike A sanitation workers strike in Memphis, Tenn., would end up being King's last cause. As the nation marks 50 years since the civil rights leader was assassinated, we look back at King's final speech.
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Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Cause: Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike

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Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Cause: Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Cause: Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. broke away from his work on a Poor People's Campaign to answer a call from Memphis. Activists there needed him to help energize a sanitation workers' strike, a cause for economic justice that would be his last. Tomorrow, the nation marks 50 years since King's assassination. As part of our series about the historic nature of the year 1968, NPR's Debbie Elliott looks back at King's final speech and his time in Memphis.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Only one African-American church sanctuary in Memphis was large enough to accommodate the crowd that Martin Luther King drew on April 3, 1968.

CHARLES BLAKE: This is Mason Temple.

ELLIOTT: Mason Temple is home to the Church of God in Christ. Presiding Bishop Charles Blake walks across the red carpet to the pulpit where King preached for the last time.

BLAKE: We felt a kindredness (ph), a relationship with him and with the civil rights movement. And we were overjoyed to open our doors.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, "I'VE BEEN TO THE MOUNTAINTOP")

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We got to see it through.

ELLIOTT: "The nation is sick," he said. "Trouble is in the land." King had come to Memphis troubled himself.

XERNONA CLAYTON: He was very depressed.

ELLIOTT: Xernona Clayton was an organizer at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was a close friend of the King family.

CLAYTON: He just felt like the country was falling apart. I drove him to the airport to go to Memphis. And on the way to the airport, he said to me, you know, I'm realizing now that this country is not ripe for what we're trying to do.

ELLIOTT: There had been race riots in American cities, and the country was divided over the Vietnam War, which King had denounced. Historian Taylor Branch...

TAYLOR BRANCH: The environment in early 1968 is, I would say, one of highly aroused hostility, somewhat like the gridlock of today, but in the midst of war.

ELLIOTT: Branch is executive producer of a new HBO documentary, "King In The Wilderness," that looks at his final years.

BRANCH: Dr. King's frame of mind was pretty battered. He was not front-and-center celebrated the way he had been in Selma. A lot of the national media was totally captivated by Black Power and militancy and kind of projected the attitude that Dr. King was passe.

ELLIOTT: After spending more than a decade trying to dismantle segregation, King had turned his focus to poverty. He was organizing a Poor People's Campaign when Reverend James Lawson asked him to come to Memphis. Sanitation workers were on strike for better working conditions after two garbage collectors were killed on the job. The workers had been marching for weeks, but the strike had not garnered national attention until King came, attention Memphis did not want. King was back in town after leading a public demonstration a week earlier that erupted in a clash with police.

CLAYBORNE CARSON: He was being attacked for the violence in Memphis.

ELLIOTT: History professor Clayborne Carson is director of the Martin Luther King Research and Education Institute at Stanford and editor of King's papers.

CARSON: He knew that if he didn't respond and show that he could have a peaceful march in Memphis, then what were the prospects for his Poor People's Campaign in Washington? You know, there were signs that the country was coming apart on racial lines.

ELLIOTT: On that night, April 3, a spring thunderstorm was dousing Memphis. King was doubtful people would show for the mass meeting at Mason Temple. So at first, he stayed behind at the Lorraine Motel. But the sanctuary was full to the balconies, and the crowd called out to hear from King, according to Fred Davis, a Memphis city councilman at the time.

FRED DAVIS: He came in and sat in a chair for a minute just to catch his breath, and then he approached the podium. He had no notes, nothing. He was in the spirit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, "I'VE BEEN TO THE MOUNTAINTOP")

KING JR: We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now because I've been to the mountaintop.

(CHEERING)

JAMES LAWSON: For me, it was one of the zenith experiences of a whole movement.

ELLIOTT: Reverend James Lawson, the local minister who recruited King to Memphis.

LAWSON: It was thundering and lightning outside, and we had a tin roof in part of the Mason Temple, and so the rain was just battering the roof. Nevertheless, there was a sense inside of warmth and unity. We're engaged in a great struggle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, "I'VE BEEN TO THE MOUNTAINTOP")

KING JR: I've seen the promised land.

(CHEERING)

KING JR: 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.

(APPLAUSE)

ELLIOTT: The next day, Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The popular interpretation is that King sensed the end was near before making that seemingly prophetic speech. Historian Taylor Branch says there's another dimension. It was not unusual for King to talk about threats on his life. That final night in Memphis, Branch says, was about keeping the movement alive.

BRANCH: By rescuing nonviolence in Memphis, the people that were there with him that night were helping to restore the potential to show America a way out of the divisions that we had over poverty and war and race in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: America is shocked and saddened by the brutal slaying tonight of Dr. Martin Luther King. I ask every citizen...

ELLIOTT: Despite President Lyndon Johnson's call for calm that night, riots broke out in Memphis and around the country. Reverend James Lawson says momentum for transforming the country was lost to what he calls the politics of assassination.

LAWSON: That has continued to grieve me. His death, wherever it was going to happen, it happened in Memphis. Wherever it was going to happen, that still grieves me because of what it did to the nation, the loss.

ELLIOTT: Lawson is 89 years old and still teaching nonviolent strategies to young activists. He's not lost hope.

LAWSON: There are a lot of signs that a lot of people want to get back on the track - the women's marches, the DREAMers' marches, the work to dismantle the criminal justice system and the prison system. There's a lot of signs.

ELLIOTT: The future of King's mission is the focus of commemorative events in Memphis this week as organizers pose the question raised in King's last book - where do we go from here? Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Memphis.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN BRANCH SONG, "PRECIOUS LORD, TAKE MY HAND")

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