The Road To The Promised Land, 50 Years Later : Code Switch Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tenn. This week, we have two stories about the aftermath of his death. The first takes us to Memphis to remember King's final days. The second brings us to Oakland, Calif., where King's assassination "transformed the position of the Black Panther Party overnight."

The Road To The Promised Land, 50 Years Later

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It's April 4, 2018. And 50 years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tenn.


WALTER CRONKITE: Good evening. Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of nonviolence in the civil rights movement, has been shot to death in Memphis, Tenn.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Dr. King - just as he straightened up - he said, Dr. King, and the bullet exploded in his face.


ROBERT F. KENNEDY: Very sad news for all of you and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens and people who love peace all over the world. And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tenn.

DEMBY: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.


And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And we have two stories for you about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. One takes us to Memphis, Tenn., to remember Dr. King's final days. He was 39 and had already done so much to fight for freedom from racism and economic inequality.

DEMBY: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Birmingham campaign to end segregation, the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act - King was central to all of those historic civil rights victories. Dr. King referred to his strategy as militant nonviolence. And the day before he died, he gave a rousing speech connecting the struggles for justice here in the U.S. with struggles for justice going on around the world.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Something is happening in our world. 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, Ga.; Jackson, Miss.; or Memphis, Tenn., the cry is always the same - we want to be free.

MERAJI: In Oakland, Calif., the Black Panther Party was crying we want to be free with a different strategy from MLK's. Rather than militant nonviolence, they were practicing what has been referred to as militant self-defense.

DEMBY: Our second story tells us how Dr. King's assassination sparked a response in Oakland that took the Black Panther Party from the East Bay to the rest of the country.

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: It kind of transformed the position of the Black Panther Party overnight.

MERAJI: We'll hear more from the Black Panther's former communication director, Kathleen Cleaver, after the break. But first, we'll head to Memphis, Tenn., with NPR correspondent Debbie Elliott.

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 for the rally on that night.


KING JR.: Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We've 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, the civil rights organization led by King, and was a close friend of the King family.

CLAYTON: You 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 the 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 with signs declaring I am a man. But the strike had not garnered national attention until King came, attention Memphis did not want. Local attorney Charles Newman was part of the legal team hired by King and the SCLC. He says the city was trying to block a march planned for April 5.

CHARLES NEWMAN: Certainly at that point, a large part of the white community in Memphis was alarmed and afraid and on the verge of hysteria about possible civil disorder.

ELLIOTT: King was back in Memphis after leading a public demonstration a week earlier that had 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 the 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: Well, 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.


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

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

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

LAWSON: It was thundering and lightening 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 were engaged in a great struggle.


KING JR.: And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know the night that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. 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.

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.


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

ELLIOTT: President Lyndon Johnson called for calm that night, but 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 now 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 as organizers pose the question raised in King's last book - where do we go from here?

MERAJI: NPR's Debbie Elliott is with us now from Memphis. She's there all week covering the events taking place to commemorate Dr. King's assassination. Debbie, tell us where you are right now.

ELLIOTT: Well, I'm sitting outside at the courtyard that's in front of the Lorraine Motel, looking at the balcony where King was killed. There's a museum here now - the National Civil Rights Museum. And there are a lot of people waiting to get in to see it. And there's also a lot of setup going on. People are getting ready for the events this week. There's a bell that has been put up on the balcony of the motel. And they're going to ring that bell 39 times on Wednesday afternoon, the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, to commemorate the 39 years that he lived.

DEMBY: What are you hearing from people in response to that question - where do we go from here?

ELLIOTT: You know, I think there's a sense among a lot of the people that I spoke with that Dr. King's mission was never accomplished and that there is a lot of work still to be done, so people are thinking about how to reorganize. Here in Memphis, for instance, a city that struggles with poor education outcomes, a high poverty rate, a poverty rate that is double that for black citizens of its white residents.

You know, I talked with a woman here who's an organizer for Black Lives Matter, P. Moses, and she sort of sees her generation as needing to take the mantle and start to solve some of these entrenched problems that Dr. King was here to address 50 years ago. For instance, a few of the things that people have talked about doing - I spoke with Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund, and she's talking about trying to come up with a new campaign to end childhood poverty, sort of playing off of the lessons learned and the successes through the Poor People's Campaign, a campaign that brought about free lunches in schools and food stamps and Head Start programs. So we're going back to those successes and seeing what they can take from that to solve problems today.

Also, if you recall the Moral Mondays that were going on in North Carolina, the organizers of that project - they're talking about launching a whole new Poor People's Campaign and calling it that. So they're going to talk about that this week. There's even an I Am A Man march planned this week where workers are going to talk about workers' rights and how to address some of those issues like a living wage. So all of those subjects that Dr. King was talking about 50 years ago are still part of the discussion here today.

MERAJI: Debbie, what's the mood like? Are people energized? Are people depressed?

ELLIOTT: You know, I would say the mood is somber. I think people are reflecting on Dr. King's life and what it meant and what it meant for a movement that had promise but that had also, you know, been in kind of a dark place. Dr. King was not in a good place right before he died. He was frustrated. He'd spoken out against the Vietnam War. A lot of his supporters had broken away with him because of that. And he was struggling to sort of find footing and find what was next. So I think that there's this sense that we have to recognize this moment, but at the same time, take this moment seriously.

Let's not just come and ring a bell and lay a wreath on the balcony and say, wow, it's been 50 years. Let's say, what did this life mean? And what does it mean for us? And what action should we all take as individuals, as organizations, even as a city? Mayor Jim Strickland of Memphis told me, Memphis is a lot better. We've done a lot of things. And they have this big I Am Memphis campaign underway to commemorate this year. But the structural racism that led to Dr. King's assassination here is not gone. And that - more needs to happen to fix that.

DEMBY: That's Debbie Elliott, an NPR national correspondent, joining us from Memphis, Tenn. Thank you so much, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Glad to be with you.


MERAJI: After the break, how a plan to avenge Dr. King's assassination in Oakland, Calif., turned deadly and inadvertently popularized the Black Panther Party.

DEMBY: Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. It's two days after MLK's assassination in Memphis, Tenn. Our teammate Karen Grigsby Bates tells us what happened next in Oakland, Calif.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: April 6, 1968. While plans went forward for Dr. King's funeral in Atlanta, Oakland's Black Panther Party had plans of its own.

CLEAVER: There was a plan on the part of several carloads of Panthers that evening after Martin Luther King was killed that they were going to do something to retaliate.

BATES: That's former Black Panther Party officer Kathleen Cleaver. Today, she teaches law at Emory University in Atlanta. In 1968, she was married to Eldridge Cleaver, one of the party's most prominent and polarizing members. Eldridge was with 17-year-old Bobby Hutton. Little Bobby Hutton, as he was affectionately called, was the party's treasurer and very first recruit. He was an Oakland kid who'd watched police harass local residents for years. Again, Kathleen Cleaver.

CLEAVER: The Oakland police beat up a lot of people. They were considered brutal, arrogant. And one of the issues in the Oakland police is that they were recruited. The Oakland police were, in many cases, not from Oakland.

BATES: Hutton had come to know party founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale as they organized the party, and he wanted to join to help defend his community against police abuse. On April 6, Eldridge Cleaver had a plan. A group of Panthers were going to ambush some Oakland police to avenge Martin Luther King's death. Charles Jones, chair of Africana Studies at the University of Cincinnati, recalls the evening.

CHARLES JONES: Yeah, it was a shootout. Unfortunately, it was the consequences of an ill-advised military operation initiated and led by Eldridge Cleaver.

BATES: Jones edited "The Black Panther Party (Reconsidered)," a series of essays about the history of the Black Panther Party, many of them written by former Panthers. That exchange of gunfire, Jones said, eventually led to Hutton and Cleaver fleeing into the basement of a house occupied by two sisters. As the hail of bullets continued, you'll hear Kathleen Cleaver, followed by Charles Jones, describe what happened next.

CLEAVER: Eldridge noticed that one of the bullets in the basement of the house they were hiding caught on fire. And he said, look, I'm not worried about being shot to death, but I don't want to burn to death. And he said, Bobby, we have to get out. We have to get out of this basement.

JONES: Eldridge has been wise, has spent many years in prison, understood the stakes at hand and tried to persuade Bobby - Little Bobby Hutton to come out of the home completely nude.

BATES: From his own experience, Cleaver believed that if Hutton emerged completely nude, it would be obvious to the police he was totally unarmed. But Little Bobby would only go so far. He might have been a gun-toting revolutionary, but he was very much a 17-year-old-boy. And the teenager in him was horrified at the idea of being butt naked in the street. Kathleen Cleaver.

CLEAVER: He was embarrassed. And he took off his shirt. But he didn't want to take off his pants. And he came out of the basement with his hands in the air, and they shot him.

BATES: According to reports, more than 12 times. Bobby Hutton died instantly. Cleaver spun what happened to indicate the Panthers had been ambushed by the Oakland police. He didn't reveal the truth for more than a decade. So his publicized version of the evening's violence set off a spasm of outrage in Oakland and the rest of the Bay Area. Hutton's funeral was attended by more than a thousand people. His casket had an honor guard of Panthers in full Panther regalia. They were in black from their berets to their shades, leather jackets and boots. Actor Marlon Brando gave the eulogy. Oakland station KTUV filmed him as he addressed the crowd outside after the funeral.


MARLON BRANDO: The reverend said the white man can't cool it because he's never dug it, and I'm here to try to dig it.

BATES: And before the white man can dig it, Brando continued, he needed to acquire some empathy for what historically black communities have been through.


BRANDO: I haven't been in your place. I haven't suffered the way you've suffered. I'm just beginning to learn the nature of that experience. And somehow, that has to be translated to the white community now. Time's running out for everybody.

BATES: Kathleen Cleaver says Bobby Hutton's death transformed the Black Panther Party overnight from a group of local activists to an organization that was nationally known. Chapters sprang up in many cities across the country from Seattle to Boston. Little Bobby Hutton died two weeks before his 18th birthday. Cleaver says the killing of an unarmed 17-year-old was shocking to many.

CLEAVER: At that time, 1968, it wasn't an era in which you heard all about teenagers getting killed and shot by police.

BATES: Berkeley professor Rickey Vincent was only 6 at the time, but his mother was active in the party. And Vincent remembers the angst in the party over Hutton's death.

RICKEY VINCENT: Little Bobby Hutton represented for everyone sort of the next wave. He was the youth. He was the person that folks thought was going to carry forward the vision of the party.

BATES: Charles Jones says there was a range of reactions among the adults.

JONES: There was depression. There was also the feeling that people needed to retaliate against the police.

BATES: The retaliation came not in shootouts, though, but in the form of more community organizing, more police monitoring and more political involvement. And even though it's been 50 years since his death, Little Bobby Hutton is still very much alive in the Bay Area. If you visit, you'll see his image on posters and in murals of the Panthers. For over two decades, people in Oakland have celebrated Bobby Hutton Day with festive events and community service. Last year, part of a local park was renamed in his honor. At the Bobby Hutton Day celebration, former Panther Setu Runit (ph) made the announcement.


BATES: And also, the City of Oakland officially named this Bobby Hutton Grove, so we're no longer going to call it DeFremery Park. It's Bobby Hutton Grove.

BATES: Bobby Hutton joined the Black Panthers to help contain police brutality. Charles Jones says some things haven't changed in a half-century.

JONES: We still have this problem in the new millennium. We still have this fundamental issue of police abuse against members of the black and brown community.

BATES: Oakland will remember Bobby Hutton on Bobby Hutton Day again this year. That will happen as people in several cities around the country continue to protest police killings of black people and inequities in the criminal justice system.


DEMBY: That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you, as always. Our email is Subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed.

MERAJI: Walter Ray Watson, Leah Donnella and Sami Yenigun produced this episode with help from our intern, Kumari Devarajan. It was edited by Sami Yenigun and Vickie Walton-James. We had original music by Ramtin Arablouei.

DEMBY: Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Karen Grigsby Bates, who you just heard - Adrian Florido, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Steve Drummond and Kat Chow. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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