King Remembered on 40th Anniversary of Death The assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, forever changed the widening struggle for civil rights. Details of the day reveal King's mindset in the hours before he was killed. Also, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, one of King's contemporaries, reflects on the man behind the myth.

King Remembered on 40th Anniversary of Death

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

It's been exactly 40 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tennessee — 40 years, a lifetime ago. On the morning of April 4th, 1968, newspaper headlines were all about war. The lead in The Washington Post: "Hanoi offers talks on bombing halt; U.S. accepts."

On television, Captain Kangaroo ushered in the day. "Bonnie and Clyde" was in movie theaters. And on the radio, Otis Redding, who died four months earlier, had this number 1 hit song.

(Soundbite of song "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay")

Mr. OTIS REDDING (Singer): (Singing) Sitting on the dock of the bay wasting time. I left my home in Georgia.

NORRIS: In Memphis, sanitation workers were in the eighth week of a labor strike, and that's why Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis, taking up temporary residence in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel. It was his third visit to the city in two weeks. The strikers were protesting low pay and inhumane working conditions.

A few months earlier, two sanitation workers had been crushed to death in the compactor of a garbage truck during a rainstorm. The city did not pay for their funerals. You might remember photographs of those strikers with signs around their necks, proclaiming I am a man. They picked up the city's garbage. It didn't mean they were garbage.

(Soundbite of archived speech)

Reverend MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (Civil Rights Leader; Founder, Southern Christian Leadership Conference): All labor has dignity.

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

Rev. KING: You are doing another thing. You are reminding not only Memphis, but you reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.

(Soundbite of applause)

NORRIS: As head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King had long worked to address racial injustice. By late 1967, he was increasingly concerned about poverty as well. He'd been busy organizing another mass march on Washington — the Poor People's Campaign. But King took a side trip to Memphis. A friend and fellow minister convinced him that the sanitation strike could underscore the link between racial and economic equality.

King's plan was to lead a peaceful procession through the city on March 28, but the demonstration turned violent.

(Soundbite of protest)

NORRIS: Angry young men, committed to the Black Power movement, smashed windows and looted stores. A 16-year-old was shot dead by police. King was devastated. His reputation as the leader of a peaceful movement was marred. His authority increasingly challenged by a younger generation with more militant views about forcing social change. King was even confronted by his closest advisers. They told him to forget about Memphis, focus instead on the upcoming demonstration in Washington.

But King was convinced that he could not lead a mass protest in the nation's capital without first cleaning up the mess in Memphis. He returned to the city to try again for a peaceful demonstration. The city said no way and issued an injunction against the march.

King was at a low point — depressed, exhausted, fighting a bad cold, facing constant death threats. Matters that weighed heavy on his mind on the night of April 3rd as he stood in the Mason Temple and spoke to supporters of the strike.

Rev. KING: I just want to do God's will.

Unidentified Group: Yeah.

Rev. KING: And He has allowed me to go up to the mountains…

Unidentified Group: Go ahead.

Rev. KING: And I've looked over and I have 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.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

Rev. 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 cheers and applause)

NORRIS: King stayed up late with his aides that night and awoke on April 4th at the Lorraine Motel. It was supposed to be a day of rest and strategy. He sent one of his trusted aides, Andrew Young, to testify against the injunction in federal court.

He worked on his next sermon titled, "Why America May Go To Hell." He had catfish and hush puppies for lunch. And though he spent the day anxious for word on the injunction, his mood lightened in the afternoon. King presided over a bull session with his inner circle — Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams, Bernard Lee and his brother A.D. King.

Finally around five, Andrew Young returned with good news about the injunction. The mood grew playful. A wrestling match escalated into a pillow fight. Andrew Young has said King and the other men piled on and laughed as if Young had scored a touchdown.

The group was invited to dinner at the home of Memphis minister, Billy Kyles. Reverend Kyles had rounded up the best cooks from his congregation to whip up a Southern spread. After King's steady diet of take-what-you-can-get meals on the road, Kyles wanted to impress. King wanted to tease.

Reverend BILLY KYLES (Memphis Minister): The first thing he said to me, he said, I'm preaching Atlanta (unintelligible) to dinner. And he had ham and potato salad, and that was cold. And had Kool-Aid, and that was hot. And if that happens at your house, he said, I'm going to put it out over The Nation.

NORRIS: Kyles recalls that King was on the motel balcony talking with a few aides, milling around in the courtyard below. One, a 26-year-old Jesse Jackson, then sporting a big afro. King said Jackson was not dressed properly for dinner.

Rev. KYLES: And Jesse's response was, you know, something smart about, I didn't know on a certain tie was a prerequisite for dinner; I thought appetite was, or something liked that. And he said, man, you're crazy. He was leaning over the rail talking to Jesse. And so, only as I turned to walk away - when I walked and got four or five steps, I heard the shot.

NORRIS: A gunshot from the building across the street. King fell. His necktie severed by the bullet. His cigarette crashed in his hand; a massive open wound on the lower right side of his face.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was 39 years old, a lifetime ago.

Now, we celebrate his work, his ideals, his holiday. But as years go by as MLK rises higher on the pedestal, it's easier to forget the more complex aspects of his life.

One of the people who will always remember the full measure of Dr. King is Reverend Joseph Lowery. In 1957, along with King, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We invited Lowery to talk about his friend.

Reverend JOSEPH LOWERY (Co-Founder, Southern Christian Leadership Conference): Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: You know, when we hear about Dr. King and his personality and his speeches through all the footages that we see, he's often portrayed as a very serious man. But it seems like his full personality is something that we don't always see. Who is the man that you remember as his friend?

Rev. LOWERY: Well, since you that brought that up, I was just talking yesterday with some people who did not know that Martin had a great sense of humor. He'd like nothing better than sitting around with a group of friends, chewing the fat, telling jokes - mostly clean of course - but teasing his friends, never in a dehumanizing form or fashion but always in the context of his love for you, because if he didn't love you, he didn't tease you.

And I remember one time he teased Ralph. Ralph was asked to parade in the middle of a community where we were demonstrating and there were dangerous people looking around with threatening frowns on their faces. And after Ralph paraded, Martin said, that you all noticed Ralph did not close his eyes. That he prayed with his eyes wide open.

And I said, well, how did you know? Your eyes must have been open too. We had a big laugh. Many of my fond memories of moments we had when we could just talk to each other, man to man and heart to heart and head to head. He was a great, warm human being. And I miss him as a friend as much as in any other context.

NORRIS: Did he recognize his place in history even then?

Rev. LOWERY: No. No. We had no idea that it would be as earthshaking as it turned out to be. We didn't define integration as careful as we should have. And so integration became, to many, of the movement of all things black through all things white. When it really - authentically, integration is the emphatic movement of all things wrong to all things right.

NORRIS: You kept in touch with Dr. King. Even though you were not in Memphis when he was shot, you are in constant contact with him. What was his state of mind in that week?

Rev. LOWERY: A few days before he went to Memphis, he was in Birmingham where I was living at that time. And he came by my house that evening after the mass media, and we talked briefly. We learned later that James Earl Ray was probably in Birmingham at the same time stalking him. Martin didn't know who, but he knew somebody was stalking him. And he was aware of that and he said to me on more than one occasion, you know, I'm probably not going to live to be forty. But that did not deter him, it did not make him take detours, he never compromised his principles nor short-circuited his mission, so that justice rolled down like waters, because he knew that there were those who wanted to take his life.

NORRIS: Are you concerned about how Dr. King is remembered?

Rev. LOWERY: Yes, of course I am. And I think one of the things that we have to resist the temptation to reduce him to some kind of glorified social worker. And there's nothing wrong with social workers because it's a noble and honorable task. But Martin was a revolutionary. He was a nonviolent revolutionary, and that's why we don't often associate him with revolution. But what he led was a movement that brought about a revolution. And what's so marvelous and even miraculous about that movement is that it was done without war, without bloodshed.

We never took up arms. We've put on the whole armor of God, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the sword of truth. And that's what we fought, with truth and with love, because love was the greatest power that God gave us for human relationships. And I think we need to know more about that Martin than the Martin that we always picture saying, I'm dreaming.

NORRIS: Reverend Joseph Lowery, thank you so much for speaking with us and particularly thank you for sharing your memories of your friend.

Rev. LOWERY: My pleasure, thank you.

(Soundbite of Dr. King's church sermon)

Dr. KING: I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say. If I can help somebody as I pass along. If I can cheer somebody with a word or song, if I can show somebody he's traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain.

NORRIS: Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta just two months before his death.

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