Vivid Recollections of the Day King Was Killed Five people share their recollections of hearing the news of the Rev. King's assassination.
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Vivid Recollections of the Day King Was Killed

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Vivid Recollections of the Day King Was Killed

Vivid Recollections of the Day King Was Killed

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From NPR News, this is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya.

We want to revisit a special broadcast we brought you earlier this year, on April 4th.

CHIDEYA: Forty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. At 6:01 p.m. in Memphis, one of King's aides, Ralph Abernathy, heard what sounded like a firecracker. Abernathy opened the door to his room at the Lorraine Motel and found Dr. King lying across the balcony. The sound he'd heard seconds earlier was the gunshot that struck Dr. King in the neck.

Top aide Andrew Young was in the parking lot with other members of the King entourage.

Mr. ANDREW YOUNG (Dr. Martin Luther King's Aide): When I looked up he was no longer on the balcony, but I could see his shoes sticking out from under the banister there. And I ran up and there he was. He was obviously gone.

(Soundbite of archived newscast)

Unidentified Man #1: This is an NBC News Hotline Special Report. Here is Don Hickman in Memphis.

Mr. DON HICKMAN (NBC News): Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot outside a Memphis motel…

CHIDEYA: Dr. King was officially pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. As the news trickled out via television, radio and word of mouth, it left sorrow and anger in its wake. We asked a series of African-American luminaries from the worlds of politics and letters, what do you remember about the moment you heard Dr. King had died?

Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (Democratic Political Strategist): I will never forget the day Martin Luther King was assassinated.

CHIDEYA: Donna Brazile was 8 years old at the time, living just outside New Orleans.

Ms. BRAZILE: It was a Thursday, a cloudy day in New Orleans. I'd just returned home from school, finished my homework. My grandmother, Frances, who at the time was 71 years old, was in the kitchen, and she called us. We went into her room and she said I need you all to pray. And I didn't know what happened because she was in the kitchen stirring something up, and the next thing I knew we're on our knees. And I kept looking up at my grandmother, she was crying, and I kept saying what's wrong? And she said Martin Luther King have been shot.

CHIDEYA: That year Roger Wilkins was assistant attorney general under Ramsey Clark.

Professor ROGER WILKINS (History and American Culture, George Mason University; Former U.S. Assistant Attorney General, Johnson Administration): The agency I ran, Martin had said, was the wing of civil rights movement inside the government.

CHIDEYA: On the evening of April 4th, Wilkins was in a Washington, D.C., meeting with civil rights lawyer Marian Wright. They were discussing programs for the poor in Mississippi when Wright's fiance, Peter Edelman, called on the telephone.

Prof. WILKINS: He told Marian that Dr. King had been killed. I talked to my wife and she said, yes, the attorney general was looking for me. And I talked to the attorney general and he said come in to the office, please.

Mr. HAKI MADHUBUTI (Poet): I heard the news over the radio. I didn't own a television at that time.

CHIDEYA: In 1968, poet Haki Madhubuti was known by his birth name, Don L. Lee. He was 26, living in a basement apartment on the west side of Chicago and completely immersed in the more militant ideas of the Black Power movement.

Mr. MADHUBUTI: You know, just like everyone else, I was stunned and even tears came to my eyes because even though philosophically, I was not totally in the nonviolent movement. It must have made it clear that when he was here in Chicago, I participated in all of the marches, all of them. And so whatever philosophical problems I had with him were eclipsed as a result of his actions here in Chicago.

(Soundbite of archived newscast)

Mr. DAN RATHER (Correspondent, CBS News): Dan Rather reporting for CBS News in New York.

Mr. MICHAEL ERIC DYSON (Author; Theologian): I was sitting in front of the television…

Mr. RATHER: Reverend Martin Luther King…

Mr. DYSON: …watching the regular program when the newsman interrupted.

CHIDEYA: Author and Theologian Michael Eric Dyson was 9 years old and growing up in Detroit.

Mr. DYSON: And in a kind of somber monotone announced that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot in Memphis, Tennessee. And behind me my father ejaculated this, hmm, you know, as if someone had punched him in the gut, an involuntary verbal response that testified to the magnitude of that news.

Ms. BRAZILE: We finished our prayers and went and sat by the television and waited to hear more news. It was probably nightfall before we learned that he had not survived.

(Soundbite of archived newscast)

Mr. RATHER: It's been just a little over an hour since Dr. Martin Luther King died from an assassination.

CHIDEYA: Again, Ambassador Andrew Young.

Mr. YOUNG : I knew enough biology to know that he probably didn't even hear the shot. I guess, my first thought was that if anybody deserved a heavenly reward, he certainly deserved it. But then I got frustrated and angry because how are we going to make it? We were just barely making it with him, and he's going on to heaven and leaving us in this hell. We almost all wished we could have gone with him and gotten it over with.

(Soundbite of music)

Prof. WILKINS: In the evening of Dr. King's murder, the attorney general's office filled up.

CHIDEYA: Roger Wilkins.

Prof. WILKINS: What we were getting from the field was that there was beginning to be serious unrest in some of the cities and there was already some burning.

Mr. MADHUBUTI: I walked outside of my, you know, basement apartment, just walked and saw the people in the community all saying King was shot, King was shot.

Unidentified Woman: Okay. Now, we are ready to talk. We're going to finish it up.

Mr. MADHUBUTI: And that evening, fires begin to hit Chicago.

(Soundbite of sirens wailing)

Mr. RATHER: Crowds had been gathering on the street corners and the police are trying to break them up.

(Soundbite of sirens wailing)

CHIDEYA: Riots sprang up in more than a hundred cities across America. President Lyndon Johnson went on national television.

President LYNDON JOHNSON: I ask every citizen to reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King who lives by nonviolence.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MADHUBUTI: But King was our voice, I think, so when you killed him, you killed a little bit of us. And the only way we could respond in terms of this rage was to hit the streets. You know, I hit the streets as an organizer and trying to stop some of this stuff, but at the same time, I'm not a fool, you see. You're going to allow people to do what they feel is necessary and just get out of the way.

Prof. WILKINS: Well, I thought that it was a great betrayal of Martin Luther King.

CHIDEYA: In Memphis, King's lieutenants attempted to go on television to plead for calm.

Prof. WILKINS: But they were more interested in covering the fire than they were in hearing what we had to say.

Ms. BRAZILE: What we were hearing from some of the preachers and some of the leaders in the community was that some cities were burning across the country, and they say we have to put something black across our front door to show solidarity with the civil rights movement. We were afraid that if we didn't put something on the window or the doorsill that perhaps our home would get burned. And, of course, my mother didn't want us to do anything, but I went and grabbed her headscarf and went around the back of the house through the alley with a thumbtack and I put it across our front door in solidarity.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Unidentified Man: The police put out a wanted bulletin for quote, "a young white male"…

CHIDEYA: Back in Washington, President Johnson ordered Attorney General Ramsey Clark to go to Memphis. Roger Wilkins was part of the delegation.

Prof. WILKINS: Plus, a man named Deke DeLoach, who was the third ranking person in the FBI. And DeLoach then was full of information - I'd put that in quotes — about where the FBI search was. He said that they had the rifle upstairs in the FBI laboratory, that this was a lone gunman, it was not the result of a conspiracy — a lone gunman who would soon be under arrest.

I am not sure that any of us were thinking very straight. We had absorbed a terrible shock and we had very little sleep and we had no verifiable sources on the ground to give us information that contradicted that of the FBI. And I, you know, I think general human impulse was to believe your FBI. Well, I still think it was a mistake. I should have been more careful. I should've been more suspicious of the FBI. I was not.

Mr. YOUNG: We saw a lot of policemen running toward us with their guns drawn, when the shot obviously came from behind them. But the first implication that there was some government involvement was that there was a big, oh, 6 to 8-foot, you know, azalea bush or some kind of big bush right there across the street from the hotel.

And some people thought they saw a shot coming from - they saw smoke coming from that bush. But by the time we got up the next morning, in fact, even when we got back from the hospital late that night, the Memphis Parks Department had gone out there in the middle of the night and had cut down all of those bushes and swept that area clean.

Now, when we asked about that, they said that was by order of the Memphis Police. And so that was the first signal that there was something wrong.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MADHUBUTI: I'm a poet. It sent me to the page. And so I did write a poem about it - "The assassination."

It was wild. The bullet hit high, the throat neck. And from everywhere, the motel, from under bushes and cars, from around corners and across streets, out of the garbage cans and from rat holes and the earth, they came running. With guns drawn, they came running toward the King. All of them, fast and sure, as if the King was going to fire back. They came running fast and sure in the wrong direction.

CHIDEYA: Dr. King had come to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. The day after his murder, the workers decided to proceed with their scheduled march. Roger Wilkins was there.

Prof. WILKINS: It was the most moving demonstration I've ever seen. These black men wearing sandwich boards, each side of which said, I am a man. It brought back feelings about slavery and about the worst times of Jim Crow. To see that the day after Dr. King's murder was one of the most moving things I've ever seen in my life.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: The speech that Dr. King had given the day before his assassination was heard across the airwaves.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Dr. KING: And I've seen the promise land.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Dr. KING: I may not get there with you.

Mr. DYSON: I, on the other hand, had no idea who Martin Luther King, Jr. was. I've never heard his name. I've never heard his voice. I've never seen his face. And then, immediately, I was ushered in to the last speech that Dr. King gave.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Dr. KING: 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.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Mr. DYSON: And that was my introduction on television to this great prophet of American democracy. And after that, I went out and found every book I could of Martin Luther King, Jr., every speech I could get.

Ms. BRAZILE: That moment in my life, I wanted to work in the movement. I wanted to be a civil rights worker. I was totally, not only in love with the movement, but I saw myself as a little girl taking my own seat at the table.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Lives transformed by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We heard in order of their first remarks, Ambassador Andrew Young, Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile, former Assistant Attorney General Roger Wilkins, poet and educator Haki Madhubuti, and theologian Michael Eric Dyson.

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