06/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

King's Final 365-Day Odyssey

This year will mark the 42nd anniversary of Martin Luther King' death. April 4, 1968 is widely known as the day King was assassinated.

But it was also the day that culminated in a violent crescendo that placed an exclamation point on King's 365-day odyssey.

Ironically, it was on April 4 1967 that King announced his opposition to the conflict in Vietnam.

"Now it should be incandescently clear," King told a crowd at Riverside Church in New York. "No one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam."

In what could be argued as his most courageous speech, King's remarks placed him outside the mainstream, given that many had not yet turned against the war. Moreover, opposition to King's Vietnam speech was divided almost equally between traditional white and black supporters. Many felt King had stepped outside his sphere of influence by commenting on foreign policy matters.

Time Magazine, who just four years prior, had named King as its "Man of the Year," called the speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi," and the Washington Post declared King had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."

The next week, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where King served as co-pastor with his father, he spoke to his congregation of this tragic irony.

"The press was so noble in its applause and so noble in its praise when I said be nonviolent toward [Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner] "Bull" Connor. There is something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when say be nonviolent toward Bull Connor, but will curse and damn you when you say be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children."

King had expanded his definition of civil rights to include economic justice faster than the country was prepared to receive it.

This "radical" extension of the Civil Rights Movement would lead King to call for a "Poor People's Campaign. 
The Poor People's Campaign was King's plan to lead waves of poor people to Washington to set up a shantytown on the National Mall to show President Johnson and Congress the faces of the poor up close and personal.

While King was undergoing his own metamorphosis, he was constantly under the surveillance and harassment of the FBI. It is a sad commentary of history in that among King's adversaries included his own government. 
But as King prepared for his campaign to take place in the spring of 1968 something happened in Memphis.

Black sanitation workers facing wretched conditions decided to go on strike. In Memphis, low wages and inhumane conditions, black sanitation workers were not allowed to ride in the truck's cab with white workers. So when it rained, they often climbed in the back where the garbage cans got emptied.

On February 1, Echol Cole and Robert Walker were riding in the back and the mechanism went off and went into action. The driver stopped the truck, but by the time he got out of the truck, the packing mechanism had grabbed them and mashed them just like garbage and they were killed instantly.

Rev. James Lawson asked King to come to Memphis to boost the worker's morale. In the role of the Good Samaritan, King arrived on March 18, 1968 and spoke to a massive crowd at the Mason Temple, a Pentecostal church.

We know from the footage that has been indelibly etched into our minds for the past 42 years that King would prophetically speak again at Mason Temple on April 3, 1968. In that final speech, King is more radical than his public persona as he calls for an economic boycott against Memphis if the conditions of the sanitation workers are not met.

After King's death, there was a Poor People's Campaign, but without its most eloquent prophet it was ineffectual.

King's final year, though controversial to some and irrelevant to others, was an unwavering commitment to those on the underside of life.

In the words of scholar and King associate Vincent Harding, "King chose to be one with the poor. And you cannot, in a materialistic society, be one with the poor unless you're turning your face against the mainstream of the society. That's what we mean by becoming more radical, that you become someone who Mr. J. Edgar Hoover can call "the most dangerous Negro in America."

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of "Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War." E-mail him at or visit his Web