"Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you." Martin Luther King, Jr., Mason Temple Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968
In late March and early April 1968, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. devoted his organizing talents to a drive to bring the nation's poor people to Washington, D.C. for a series of massive nonviolent demonstrations. King's "Poor People's Campaign" would attempt to unify African Americans, Latinos, and lower-income whites in pressing the Johnson Administration and Congress in an election year to enact a $30 billion-a-year domestic "Marshall Plan" to alleviate poverty. King hoped his latest March on Washington would sustain the momentum of the maturing civil rights movement by broadening its goals to include class grievances. He was also searching for a nonviolent alternative to the wave of riots that had ripped through black neighborhoods in the preceding years. Although King understood the underlying social causes for the uprisings, he believed they were "misguided" as forms of political protest.
With the Poor People's Campaign, King said: "There must be some structural changes now," and "a radical re-ordering of priorities" including "a de-escalation and final stopping of the war in Vietnam and an escalation of the war against poverty and racism here at home." King linked poverty with the waste of resources on the war. (Today, with $10 billion a month currently being squandered in Iraq, King's critique of the Vietnam War still resonates.) The Poor People's Campaign brought together clergy, labor unions, civil rights groups, and college students to create what King hoped to be a lasting coalition with blacks and poor whites. He promised to launch the campaign by bringing a core group of "about 3,000 people to Washington from fifteen various communities," including the entire impoverished hamlet of Marks, Mississippi.
The poor people and their allies would occupy the public spaces of Washington for "at least sixty days, or however long we feel it necessary," King promised. He hoped it would be reminiscent of the March on Washington of 1963. He said the culminating event would take place on June 15 with a massive rally. "We want to provide an opportunity once more for thousands, hundreds of thousands of people to come to Washington," he said. "We hope that all of our friends will go out of their way to make that a big day, indeed the largest march that has ever taken place in the city of Washington."
King said explicitly on several occasions that forging a class-based movement was the goal of the campaign. The "poor white" had been put into a position, he wrote, "where through blindness and prejudice, he is forced to support his oppressors, and the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he is superior because his skin is white. And he can't hardly eat and make ends meet week in and week out."
On Sunday, March 31, 1968, in a sermon in Washington's National Cathedral, King promised to bring to the nation's capital "the tired, the poor, the huddled masses." He said that all they were asking for was what the Declaration of Independence had promised all Americans: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. King had lofty intentions for the march, but it was uncertain whether he could deliver. The demands included Congressional enactment of a full-employment plan, a guaranteed annual income, and construction funds for at least 500,000 units of low-cost housing per year. The early organizing for the campaign was slow and arduous. King contemplated calling off the campaign on more than one occasion and twice was forced to postpone its opening date. (Contrary to mainstream belief today, while King was alive he was never widely heralded in the media as a "savior" or a "great leader." He was just as often denounced as a "polarizing" figure and his work was often denigrated in racist terms. As was the case with Robert F. Kennedy, the love affair with MLK only took off long after he had become a kind of martyr.)
Against the advice of some of his closest advisers, King took time out from organizing the Poor People's Campaign to travel to Memphis, to help with a month-long strike of the city's 1,300 mostly African-American sanitation workers. He felt obliged to Reverend James Lawson who asked King for assistance against a recalcitrant local white power structure. Lawson had been a solid ally of King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) going back to the 1950s.
Three days before his sermon in Washington, on March 28, 1968, King had led about 15,000 people on a march through downtown Memphis in solidarity with the striking garbage workers. The demonstration quickly degenerated into violence after young blacks at the rear began smashing windows and fighting with police. Tension had been rising since an altercation earlier that day between police and black teenagers. There is evidence that some of those who turned violent were agent provocateurs working for J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. King had to be whisked away from the scene in a passing car that aides flagged down. When the riot was over, one black youth had been shot and killed by police, sixty people were injured, and 4,000 Tennessee National Guardsmen closed off the central city.
On April 3, 1968, a night of hurricane-force winds and severe storm warnings throughout the South, King spoke to an audience of about 3,000 who crammed into the Mason Temple in Memphis. He was pained that the media had only focused on the violence of the previous protest. The press, he said, "very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that 1,300 sanitation workers were on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them." King closed his address with a prescient glimpse at his own destiny: "I've seen the Promised Land," he thundered. "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." The elated audience leapt to its feet and punctuated each phrase with cheers and affirmations. King continued, perspiration beading on his brow, his speech reaching an emotional crescendo. "And 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!" He pulled himself back from the lectern and plopped down on a chair as well wishers surrounded him, reaching out to touch him.
The following day, April 4, 1968, just before 6:00 p.m., King, his brother A.D. King, and some aides were preparing to leave the black-owned Lorraine Motel where King had stayed during his visits to Memphis since the 1950s. They were getting ready to go to a buffet dinner at the home of friend. On the second floor, King emerged from room 306 and walked on to the balcony. After bantering with friends down in the courtyard about whether he would need his coat, he turned back to his room. A loud report like that of a car backfiring reverberated through the courtyard. People instinctively ducked for cover. An uncommonly accurate shot fired from a high-powered rifle had altered the course of American history. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the greatest African-American spiritual and political leader of the 20th century, was slain at the age of 39.
The news of the killing spread rapidly, and cities across America began to explode into rioting. New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy was campaigning for president at the time in Indiana and was on his way to speak to an African-American audience in Indianapolis when he first heard the news that King had been killed. The Republican mayor of Indianapolis, Richard Lugar, warned Kennedy not to go into the African-American part of town because they expected an uprising. Ignoring them, Kennedy went to speak to a crowd of about 4,000 people. Most of those present had not yet heard of King's fate. He skipped being introduced, and climbed on to a flatbed truck that served as a makeshift stage. It was a drizzly night with gusty winds, and a lone floodlight barely illuminated the platform. Unbeknownst to Kennedy, his brief remarks that night would be later described as a small masterpiece of American public rhetoric made all the more poignant by his own assassination just eight weeks later. Standing in front of a bulky microphone, Kennedy spoke extemporaneously:
"Ladies and Gentlemen, I am only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening because I have some very sad news for all of you. I have bad news for you, 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 killed tonight."
Those gathered let out an audible gasp followed by shouts of "No!" Kennedy paused for a moment, and then continued:
"Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort."
"In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization -- black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred for one another.
"Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.
"For those of you who are black and tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States; we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.
"My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: 'In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'
"What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black. . . .
"We've had difficult times in the past. We will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.
"But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.
"Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of the world.
"Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and four our people."
It was the only time Kennedy spoke publicly about his brother's murder. That night, violence engulfed 126 cities, and caused thirty-nine deaths and 2,500 injuries. Parts of Washington, D.C. were on fire, and the Army deployed machine gunners on the roof of the Capitol building. But Indianapolis stayed calm that night. Kennedy sent members of his staff to assist Coretta Scott King, and he quietly chartered a plane for the family to carry King's body back to Atlanta. He suspended all campaign activities.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is celebrated each year with a national holiday where we are treated to the spectacle of seeing the likes of George W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, Sean Hannity, and George Will shed crocodile tears over his memory and his "dream." People who would be disparaging everything King did if this was 1968 make a point of appropriating the "meaning" of his life for a few minutes every January 15th. In 2008, in the heat of the election year, with war abroad and growing poverty at home, we should take pause for a moment and remind ourselves of King's legacy. We might take a minute out of our busy day and think about what has happened to America in the 40 years since King was murdered. We might also ponder just for a moment what King might be thinking if he could see Barack Obama, who opposes another unjust and wasteful war and is trying to be a voice for poor people of all races and ethnicities, having a realistic chance of becoming the first African-American President of the United States. Forty years ago America lost one its finest young leaders, but we can see today that Martin Luther King's legacy lives on.