Holy Week: Overcome
Part 4: In Memphis, the movement faces a reckoning.
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Juandalynn Abernathy: Yolanda and I were on the telephone talking, as we did every day—every day after school. We were extremely close.
And at that time, we had the Princesses telephone. You know what that little Princess telephone looked like? It’s this oval, half oval. And she had the pink color and I had a pink color.
Vann R. Newkirk II: Juandalynn Abernathy was at home in Atlanta, on her private phone line with her best friend, Yolanda—Yolanda King, who she called Yoki. Then another phone line at the house rang.
Abernathy: And then I said, “Yoki, wait just a moment. The telephone is ringing. Let me pick it up.” And in picking up the phone was a friend of mine, and she said, “I’ve been trying to get you on your line.” And I said, “I know. I’m on the phone with Yoki.” And she says, “You have to turn on the television. Dr. King has been shot.”
Newkirk: Juandalynn was 13. To her, “Dr. King” wasn’t just a famous person on the TV. He was “Uncle Martin.” Her daddy was Ralph David Abernathy, King’s closest associate and his best friend. The two families had been joined together by the movement. They went on vacations together. And King’s daughter, her best friend, was waiting on the other line.
Abernathy: I hung up the phone, turned on the television up front, and ran back to the bedroom. And I told Yoki. And she hung up the phone; I hung up the phone. And then all of a sudden, the doorbell starts to ring. And I run up front, and the house starts filling up with people, and my mother is walking out of the bedroom.
Newkirk: Juandalynn’s mother had already gotten the news.
Abernathy: She was on the phone with Aunt Coretta.
Newkirk: Like all the partners and spouses in the movement, she had a bag packed and plans in place to move at a moment’s notice, in case of something urgent: A bomb threat. A disaster. An assassination.
Abernathy: It wasn’t 10 minutes, and we were gone. Just like that [snaps].
Newkirk: Friends came to take the family to the airport, to get to Memphis.
Abernathy: And I just remember thinking, Oh. I’m praying. Oh, he’ll be all right. He’ll be all right. Just praying.
Newkirk: This was something they’d known might happen, something they’d trained for.
Abernathy: We were no fools, you see. So we were praying, of course, that Uncle Martin would make it, and just hoping and thinking, It’s not bad. It’s not bad. He’ll be all right.
Newkirk: King had almost died once before, when a woman stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener in 1958. Still, experiencing this was another thing.
Abernathy: And then we’re jumping out of the car, and Mother has met Aunt Coretta, and they’re on the way to the gate. And I see the mayor, Ivan Allen, walking toward them. And I hear him say to Coretta, he’s very sorry to have to say to her, um … that Uncle Martin had died.
Newkirk: Coretta Scott King would fly the next day to Memphis, to claim her husband’s body. She and Ralph David Abernathy had to plan a funeral befitting a man who meant so much to so many, and who had been killed for that meaning. They would all have to begin to learn to make grief a companion, and figure out how to go on without a husband, father, brother, uncle, and friend.
On the ground in Memphis, how to mourn King as a person was only one consideration of many. Movement leaders and the Black workers they’d come to aid had to figure out how to keep King’s work alive. But in order to do that, they had to confront a country that had grown suspicious of him and of the movement. They had to learn how to march without their drum major. A crisis of faith was coming. And there were no easy answers.
Abernathy: It was like our world fell apart, because Uncle Martin was like the center. Everything centered around Uncle Martin.
Newkirk: Part 4: “Overcome.”
Newkirk: The old Lorraine Motel in Memphis is now the National Civil Rights Museum. Walking through the front door, you see and hear an entire history of the movement, from slavery to emancipation, through the killing of Emmett Till, to the sit-ins and boycotts. A walk through the history of Blackness leads you to room 306, the only area that still looks like it did in 1968. The last bedroom where Martin Luther King slept is now enclosed in glass. Music and the sound from a video exhibit usually bleeds into the hallway and bounces off the glass walls. But when museum staff turned the sound off for us, the space became contemplative. Still.
We visit with John Burl Smith. He stops and comments on the photos we pass. He’s got on a brown Kangol beret. It’s somewhere between New Jack City and Nick Fury.
John Burl Smith: Room 306 is just down the walk, about four or five rooms from where we were.
Newkirk: He can’t find his own face in the exhibits, and he feels a certain way about it. But he was a part of this story. A part of the story of this room.
Burl Smith: And we came down and knocked on the door. Dr. King came to the door and he invited us in. And I was surprised that it was only him, because the hotel was full of SCLC people. But he was in a room by himself. We came into the room and we talked.
Newkirk: Room 306 feels like a liminal space between what is and what might have been. Between the present that we have and the future that people in the movement dared to envision. It’s easy to get caught up here, thinking about what happens if there is peace in Vietnam in ’68, or what happens if King does not get shot, if he lives to be an old man.
Many of the histories of the movement say that it ended here, with a single gunshot, in 1968. But that reading of history always struggles to explain the reason King was here in the first place. In fact, the movement was already at a crossroads—maybe a turning point, maybe a breaking point—before he traveled to Memphis at all. King was no longer in favor with the public, or with the president. People were wondering if his philosophy of nonviolence was useful anymore. Lots of younger Black folks were tuning King out, even saying he was the problem.
Burl Smith: I basically saw him as an appeaser, so to speak.
Newkirk: John was born to a sharecropping family in Mississippi, but they moved to Memphis when he was young. Growing up, he wasn’t a “rock the boat” kind of kid.
Burl Smith: Well, I’ll put it like I was raised to be a good colored boy.
Newkirk: It’s interesting to see John now and try to think about him as a kid. Right now the guy is a walking radical-Black-history encyclopedia. He’s like the platonic ideal of the conscious older brother. He wrote 1,000-page book telling the history from slavery to hip-hop. But back in the day? His mother did a little community work. They knew the NAACP, but they weren’t activists. John wanted to grow up and have that middle-class, white-picket-fence life. He liked the bravado of John Wayne in his movies. So during the Vietnam War, he decided to join the Air Force.
Burl Smith: I had honored the nation by serving. I felt that I was due the blessings of America in terms of a good job and those kind of things.
Newkirk: He shipped out in ’64—after the “I Have a Dream Speech” but before the Selma to Montgomery march. The Civil Rights Act passed that year and everything seemed on the way up. The Voting Rights Act passed the next year. But then, the energy started to shift.
Reporter: It began with police and rioters clashing on a hot Wednesday night. Some believe it could have been stopped right then.
Police dispatch: Calling in looters at 52 and Broadway. All units …
Newkirk: In ’65, not too long after Selma and the Voting Rights Act, the ghetto in Watts, California, rose in rebellion.
Crowd: Kill the white man!
Reporter: Then came summer, 1966, and as riots crackled through his cities, the Northern white man came to realize the depth of his confusion, his animosity, and fear. Black Power was the catalyst, a phrase shouted by a 25-year-old revolutionary on a Mississippi highway. It was a rallying cry to Northern Blacks, mired in frustration and bitterness, a cry that sounded like a threat of violence, of vengeance, to a white man fed up with racial turmoil.
Newkirk: Major riots took place over the following four summers in cities across America. SNCC and other organizations pushed away from King’s orbit. Leaders like Stokely Carmichael with his message of Black Power questioned if nonviolence could even still work.
Burl Smith: Stokely uttered the first statements about Black Power, but civil-rights leaders had closed the door on that. They really didn’t want anything to do with Black Power. And I, following their line, felt the same way: that Black Power really was something that was going to destroy the Black community.
Newkirk: King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference knew that Black Power was tapping into something real, especially in the North. They decided to shift their organizing up to Chicago, to protest housing segregation and prove that they had relevance beyond old Jim Crow. But Chicago didn’t go as they planned.
[Racist shouting: “I live here. Get back. I live here! Those fucking (N-word) don’t live here; I live here.”]
Newkirk: White folks showed up by the busload to protest against him. Some waved signs with swastikas. During one march in a white neighborhood in 1966, a counter protester hit King in the head with a rock.
Eventually, King and the SCLC did force some housing reforms in the city. But it didn’t feel like the same kind of glory that people were used to.
Reporter: King’s people acknowledged that they needed a victory if there were not to be defections from their forces. That victory finally came when Dr. King threatened to march on the suburban town of Cicero. Chicago civic leaders feared violence there. So at a hastily assembled summit meeting, they agreed to some concessions and King called off his march. Through it all, though, he had insisted that no matter what the competition from his more-militant Black brothers, he would never renounce his policy of nonviolence.
Newkirk: King was being challenged and changed. Around the same time, so was John Burl Smith. He came back from Vietnam in ’66 and got a job. He was working his way toward that white-picket-fence life. But his old childhood friend, Charles Cabbage, had just come back from Morehouse College in Atlanta. And he had been radicalized.
Burl Smith: Well, Charles, when he comes home, I don’t recognize him because he’s got this—he’s wearing sandals and Levi’s, and he’s got a dashiki on and a big, huge afro and a beard. He’s wearing shades.
Newkirk: Charles had bought into Black Power. He was already affiliated with SNCC and trying his best to bring Stokely Carmichael’s philosophies and tactics to Memphis. And he wanted John’s help.
Burl Smith: So for about three weeks, we are debating the political atmosphere in the Black community. And of course, I’m on the side of defending America. I believe the Bill of Rights and the Constitution applied to me. And Charles is on the other side, chopping all that up as it come out of my mouth. I knew he was not someone that was pumped up with a lot of, you know, “bull” about being Black. And so Charles was like my model as to what Black Power advocates do.
Newkirk: John decided to start taking his own trips to Atlanta. SNCC had an organizing and training program around Black colleges there. Prospective Black radicals came there to read Black socialists and anarchists, and to learn how to debate other people’s beliefs.
Burl Smith: And this kind of developed into what they started to call Black Power sleepovers. So it was kind of like a party, but it was really serious because we were really the people who had done the reading.
Newkirk: Around the same time, Charles was making good on his promise to build something in Memphis. He and a friend, Coby Smith, were starting a homegrown organization, similar to the Black Panthers out West. They began by calling it the Black Organizing Project. John was a founding member.
Burl Smith: Charles brought Black Power to Memphis.
Newkirk: And how did that feel to be the guys?
Burl Smith: It felt strange to me, but good.
Newkirk: The group spread their message to Black youth in the colleges and universities around Memphis. They brought in their friends and cousins. There were younger kids in the city too, who were restless—neighborhood clubs and gangs. Charles and John wanted to connect with them and channel their energy into organizing.
Burl Smith: They had a little neighborhood club and the leader of the group was an artist whose name was Donny Delaney. Donny had taken a Levi’s jacket and cut the sleeves off and decorated the back, and the name of their group was called the Invaders. At that time, there was this TV show called The Invaders.
Newkirk: The premise of the show was that aliens had come to the Earth and wanted to make it their world.
Burl Smith: So I identified with that metaphor, and I put the letters on the back of my Army jacket. And this is basically the beginning of the Invaders.
Newkirk: By late 1967, John was about as far away from the white-picket-fence life as you can get. He had an Afro. He was walking around Memphis with a military jacket with invaders on the back. He was speaking out openly against capitalism and imperialism and the Vietnam War. And he was definitely not with all that nonviolent stuff.
Burl Smith: Civil-rights leaders were busy attacking Black Power advocates for destroying the community and even being Communists. Yeah, any kind of charge that would denigrate Black Power in the eyes of the general public.
Newkirk: The group called themselves the Invaders. They didn’t think much of Dr. King. But even they noticed that something was changing about him. Around the same time John made his radical turn, King started speaking out forcefully against the war in Vietnam. He tied the struggle against white supremacy to the larger struggle against imperialism.
In doing so, he knowingly offended Lyndon B. Johnson, white liberal supporters, and other members of that civil-rights middle-class leadership. The NAACP openly criticized King. But it all got John to listening.
Burl Smith: When you look at how America was treating us in terms of the denial of the basic rights of human beings, then a person like Dr. King can’t do anything but come out against the war, because it was an anathema for him. There was no way you could make a deal with the devil.
Newkirk: Even with his new stance on Vietnam, the Black papers were reporting that King was losing ground and authority to more militant, younger Black groups. The SCLC was under pressure on all sides. So they decided to try something new. Something bigger.
Bill Greenwood (journalist): The most massive series of demonstrations ever attempted is the promise of Dr. Martin Luther King, leader of a planned April civil-disobedience drive in Washington. Dr. King …
Reporter: … A coalition of 75 Washington Negro groups has voiced support for Dr. Martin Luther King’s April demonstrations here …
Newkirk: In 1967, King announced the new Poor People’s Campaign. The idea was to bring thousands of people from Black neighborhoods to march on D.C. They would push for legislation for jobs, housing, and wages. King sent the SCLC’s biggest names around the country to try and spread the word, and held massive planning meetings in Atlanta. Ralph David Abernathy worked to harness the energy of the heyday of the movement.
Ralph David Abernathy: Are you with this Poor People’s Campaign? If so, raise your hand. All right, get that written down. [Laughter.] With the movement and with this Poor People’s Campaign. Now I’ve got to run, got to preach a sermon. [Laughter.] But I did want to get that on the record [Laughter] before I left. Now who is the next speaker?
Newkirk: The Poor People’s Campaign was going to be big—it would make the 1963 March on Washington look like a picnic. King didn’t have allies left to offend anymore, so he began planning something more confrontational, something more like a nonviolent siege.
But the SCLC wasn’t raising a lot of money. They were downright broke in early 1968. National media and public opinion were not catching the spirit Abernathy expressed. They were not rallying behind King the way they had in Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham. There was a real chance that the campaign King planned might not even get off the ground, let alone help eliminate poverty in America. But early that year, he got word about the Black sanitation workers who were striking in Memphis. And the Invaders were helping organize them.
Burl Smith: And the sanitation strike is the real event that brought everything together.
Labor leader: The lowest-paid man in our society should not have to strike to get a decent wage a century after emancipation and after the enactment of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendment.
Taylor Rogers: It was awful every day. We had these tubs we had to put the garbage in. Most of the tubs had holes in them, and garbage would leak all over you.
Elmore Nickelberry: I had maggots in my shirts. Maggots go down into my shoes. And we worked in the rain—snow, ice, and rain. We had to. If we didn’t, we’d lose our jobs.
Speaker at rally: … because these men tell us that all their lives they’ve been wanting to be men. All their lives they’ve been struggling to be dignified. [Applause.] And they tell us that this may be their only chance and they’re not giving up! [Cheering and applause.]
Newkirk: The situation in Memphis had begun in February ’68, after two Black men, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death in the back of a garbage truck during a rainstorm. Black sanitation workers were already fed up. They weren’t allowed to use facilities that white workers could, or ride in the cabs of the garbage trucks. They couldn’t even protect themselves from the rain without risking their lives … So they planned to strike.
When Mayor Henry Loeb got word of the strike, he denounced it.
Henry Loeb: As mayor, I represent the whole city. First, I represent these men and have been available and will be available to discuss our problems. Second, and most important, I represent the public, whose health is endangered. And this cannot and will not be tolerated.
Newkirk: The sanitation workers decided to defy the mayor and strike for better wages and working conditions. They chose to organize at Clayborn Temple, an old church that was one of the centers of Black community life in Memphis.
Newkirk: Clayborn Temple is under construction now. The old, stained-glass windows that would have bathed people in multicolored light are boarded up. One of the walls collapsed. The giant organ pipes, in the back, are still there but tarnished. But now the church is being restored by a group of people inspired by the sanitation workers’ strike.
John Burl Smith and I are both given hard hats as we look around. He gave me a sense of just how packed the place must have been during the strike.
Burl Smith: That was the podium area where the preacher sat. And then there was a choir stand behind that. They had three pulpits—a large one and two little small ones. There was two aisles, and pews on the outer edge, and the way it was designed, as they went back, they got larger.
Newkirk: John says that he was drawn to the meetings at Clayborn because he’d been raised to care about his people.
Burl Smith: They had children, you know—families. And at a dollar and 75 cents, eight-hour, ten-hour days, I mean, you’re barely paying rent and buying food.
Newkirk: But he also says that at first the meetings at Clayborn mostly featured civil-rights leaders talking down at the workers—that the workers themselves weren’t given a voice. They looked dejected. Even talking about it now seemed to get to him.
Newkirk: Now, I notice this is something you get animated about.
Burl Smith: Yes, I get very animated about it because they were like my father. You know. I could look in their faces and in their eyes, and I knew what was going on in their life.
Newkirk: Lots of the younger Invaders, the members of the group he led, were children of the sanitation workers.
Burl Smith: So it became personal to me the more I came down and the more I became involved in it, because I saw the helpless position they were in.
Newkirk: One night, a preacher who knew John and knew he wanted to say something invited him up to say a word before the prayer.
Burl Smith: Standing there looking out; they were so quiet and calm, you know, and subdued like they had been beat down, you know. And I wanted to make them feel like the fight had just begun. You have power.
Newkirk: There were community organizers in the crowd, including Maxine Smith, the leader of the local NAACP. John wanted to shock them, so he dialed up the rhetoric.
Burl Smith: When I get to the end, I mentioned the fact that they may have to pick up some guns and fight because this is your life and this is your livelihood.
Newkirk: When you said, “You need to get guns,” do they cheer you? Did anybody here boo you?
Burl Smith: No. Nobody booed me.
Newkirk: What did they do?
Burl Smith: Maxine Smith jumped up and ended the speech, because, “We’re not for that. We’re not for violence. We don’t want violence. Don’t listen to him.” And you know what? I didn’t care, because they had heard it.
Newkirk: They cut him off, got to the prayer. But John’s proud of that speech. For him and the Invaders, it crystallized their approach. They thought the civil-rights leaders in the city wanted to get the strikers to go back to work, to give up all their leverage.
The Invaders pushed more and more in a radical direction. John says he had the idea to use counterterrorism tactics he’d learned fighting the Viet Cong. They coached kids on how to draw the city’s attention away from the workers. They set trash fires and built barricades, and harassed the scabs who came to pick up trash.
Burl Smith: You could throw bricks at them. You could throw bottles at them. You know, you could do anything you could to make it hard on them.
Newkirk: At the start, the SCLC didn’t pay much attention to Memphis. It was a local labor conflict. But King’s associate James Lawson was chairman of the local civil-rights coalition supporting the workers. Lawson invited King to speak. After police beat strikers during one of the nearly daily marches, King finally agreed to come down. John was one of the thousands of people who crammed into another church, the Mason Temple, when King spoke.
Burl Smith: And when Dr. King got there, they had to almost carry him to the podium to get through the people.
(Group singing, then male soloist: “We shall overcome … Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday.”)
Newkirk: A lot of people thought King would just come down and give a speech and go. The Invaders even thought he might come down to break the strike, and encourage the strikers to go back to work. But then King started talking about power. He said that “power is the ability to achieve purpose; power is the ability to affect change.” It wasn’t too far from what Stokely Carmichael was saying, what the Black Panthers were saying out in Oakland. That all impressed John and his comrades a little. And then came the bombshell.
Burl Smith: And when they quieted down, and he said anybody that’s got a job shouldn’t go to work that day and children shouldn’t attend school.
And then he told them, “If you want me to, I’ll lead the march to the mayor’s office.” And of course, [Imitates crowd roar] everybody went wild.
Newkirk: It was stunning, maybe one of the most unexpected moments of King’s life. In 13 years of activism, he’d never called for or been part of a general strike. Now here he was, proposing to come back and lead it himself, talking about power. John was sold.
Burl Smith: We had proposed some radical stuff. But never, you know—we never even thought that a general strike would be something to think about, let alone do. I thought it was great. That’s when I really knew he was on the side of the workers rather than on the side of the power structure.
Newkirk: In that crowd, King saw the face of the issues he was trying to deal with. Here were poor Black workers, struggling not for the right to send their kids to white schools or the right to vote, but for a piece of the pie. It made the Poor People’s Campaign real, gave it shape and direction, in a time when the SCLC didn’t really have a plan. King decided that he would come back. He said, “The movement lives or dies in Memphis.”
Newkirk: Ten days later, Martin Luther King came back to Memphis to lead the march. They started here at Clayborn Temple.
Burl Smith: You know, I’d never seen that many Black people in one place. The March on Washington was different, you know—white people, Black people, you know. But this was Black people.
Newkirk: Some of the Invaders wanted to disrupt the march, to show it was a sham. But John just wanted to witness it.
Burl Smith: We took up positions right there at the door. On either side were the pillars are. And when the march started to move, you know, it was like being on the reviewing stand because people were waving and giving the Black Power signal and all of that as they marched down the street.
Reporter: Several thousand Negro demonstrators are participating in this largest civil-rights demonstration ever in Memphis, Tennessee. Many of the demonstrators are carrying the sign i am a man. They stretch out for several blocks. Police are on hand with about 600 officers. Almost the entire force is standing by here.
Newkirk: The march was huge. It was exactly the kind of action that Black folks in Memphis wanted King to help the strikers do.
Paul Barnett (journalist): Hundreds of people have joined. There must be 5,000 at this time or more.
Newkirk: But as the march advanced some of the younger folks walking alongside it began breaking windows.
Barnett: There go some windows. Right here, right here on Beale between Second and Third. There go the windows. We don’t know whether you can hear the tinkling of the glass or not. The first violence we have seen.
Newkirk: The whole thing started to break down. And when police came out and met the marchers with force, King’s triumph turned into a full-on riot.
Ray Sherman (journalist): Police rushing to the scene—almost struck a pedestrian. They’re moving in with riot guns and tear gas canisters. Negro youths are smashing windows.
Barnett: Dr. Martin Luther King, who was supposed to lead the march—no one has any idea where he is…
Newkirk: King’s advisers were terrified that he might be hurt or killed. So they put him in a car and drove him away.
Sherman: That sound you just heard was the sound of tear gas fired by…
(Crowd in background: “Go, go, go go.”)
Barnett: Complete disorder on Beale Street … as we mentioned the breaking of windows here on Beale …
Sherman: Police have formed a cordon across Main Street at this time in an attempt to at least calm the demonstration, which has gotten completely out of hand.
The Negro youths are shouting at this time, “Go, go, go!”
Newkirk: Police started attacking and chasing Black people on the streets. One of the officers saw Larry Payne, an 16-year-old Black kid, exiting the Sears department store. With no evidence of a crime, he chased the boy to his mother’s apartment nearby. The officer waited for Payne to leave the housing complex and shot him in the stomach with his shotgun, killing him. The police said that Payne was holding a knife, although eyewitnesses say he was unarmed and holding his hands up. The officer was never prosecuted.
Newkirk: Larry Payne was the only recorded fatality of the day. But the Memphis police brutalized the sanitation workers and their families. Some people tried to defend themselves with the same poles that carried the i am a man signs. But they were surrounded by the police.
Burl Smith: They attacked the march. And so you didn’t really have a chance to think about anything other than defending yourself. This was not just Invaders but Black men in general. There were women and children and old folks in the march. They were running for their lives. And they pushed us all the way back to Clayborn Temple, where the march started. And we were there with our backs to Clayborn Temple, and the women and children and old folks went inside the church. And they shot tear gas in the church.
Newkirk: They shot tear gas into the church?
Burl Smith: They shot tear gas into the church—went inside the church and beat up the people that were in there.
Newkirk: The organizers of the march took King back to his hotel. He crawled under the covers. He knew that this was all bad. He knew that the news would say he led a riot. When the headlines started to roll in, that’s exactly what they said. The FBI had sent direct memos to newsrooms discrediting King. They used claims they’d gotten from a crew of informants that infiltrated every single Black organization in Memphis. Even some Black publications and leaders criticized King for calling for the strike and increasing tensions in the city. City leaders used the riot to take a hard line against further protests. Mayor Loeb promised crackdowns on any future unrest.
Henry Loeb: The police, with my full sanction, took the necessary action to restore law, and order and to protect the lives and property of the citizens of Memphis.
Newkirk: The Memphis march was supposed to be King’s second wind. It was supposed to be proof that the Poor People’s Campaign would work. The SCLC was furious at the Invaders. They blamed them for instigating young people into breaking windows and setting fires. In a press conference the next morning, King basically said as much. And Coby Smith, of the Invaders, didn’t exactly dispute it.
Reporter: Have you or your group organized last night’s burnings?
Coby Smith: We don’t organize burnings; essentially, we organize people. If people burn, they burn.
Newkirk: King’s colleagues at the SCLC wanted him to denounce the Invaders. The press asked him to denounce all Black radicals in the country, including SNCC’s Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, for instigating riots. But he refused. He said that their rage was a symptom, a product of white supremacy. He reached out.
Burl Smith: And Charles and Calvin and a couple other guys met with Dr. King. And that was the first meeting between the Invaders and Dr. King.
Newkirk: It was March 29. The Invaders were still skeptical of King. But that invitation to meet was the beginning of a sort of mutual respect. King understood their frustration and goals, and saw the value in keeping them closer to him … so he could keep an eye on them. For their part, the Invaders would never formally commit to nonviolence. But they believed King was walking the talk. They decided to consider working with him and planned to talk again, when he was back in town the next week, on the afternoon of April 4 at the Lorraine Motel.
Burl Smith: Charles and I walked down to his room, walked down to Dr. King’s room for that last meeting.
Newkirk: John says they talked about the Invaders becoming marshals in the next march, about how the Invaders wanted King to help fund some of their community programs, even though they didn’t really know the SCLC was broke.
Burl Smith: He reached over and put his hand on my knee. And during that instance and exchange, I don’t know but I just got the feeling that he was genuine—that he was serious and really dedicated to what he was trying to do for the poor people of America.
Newkirk: They talked about how Memphis had changed the Poor People’s Campaign, about how the strikers embodied the problems King wanted to address, and how winning for the workers was now a strategic goal for the SCLC. They talked about what was next. John left the Lorraine and drove back to his apartment. He was convinced that there had been a breakthrough. But he says law enforcement had used his meeting to make their move.
Burl Smith: So I get to the apartment, I open the door, I walk in, and the place is torn apart because they’ve raided. The TV is on the floor, and so by the time I got it set up and plugged in and turned it on, Walter Cronkite is the first face I see.
Walter Cronkite: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., civil-rights leader and Nobel Prize winner, was shot and killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.
Burl Smith: And he’s telling us that Dr. King had just been shot. That’s how I find out.
Newkirk: Wow. How did that feel?
Burl Smith: Oh, man. That was like the bottom dropping out.
Bill Plant (journalist): Just to date this morning, Dr. Martin Luther King’s body was brought to lie in state for an hour. They were old; they were dressed for work; they were middle-aged with families—young, curious children. But they were almost all Black. For some, the experience was just too much. [Crying in background.]
Newkirk: Just hours after the shooting, a funeral home in Memphis prepared King’s body for public viewing, and then to be carried home to Atlanta. It immediately became a site of pilgrimage for Black Memphians. The rioting the previous night had been muted compared to other cities’, and even compared to the peak of the sanitation workers’ march just the week before. Maybe it was because King’s colleagues were still in the city, asking people to be peaceful. But it also felt as if everyone was just too occupied with King, with how to make the dream live on. The movement lived or died in Memphis.
After an all-night meeting with the SCLC, Ralph David Abernathy held a press conference outside of room 306. He looked and sounded tired. Exhausted. But he spoke deliberately. He used the preaching cadence that so many people associated with the movement, with King.
Ralph David Abernathy: The assassination of my dearest friend and closest associate, Martin Luther King Jr., has placed upon my shoulders the awesome task of directing the organization which he established.
Newkirk: It was like he was trying to still inspire people. Maybe even himself.
Abernathy: I tremble as I move forward to accept this responsibility. No man can fill Dr. King’s shoes.
Newkirk: Abernathy announced that the SCLC would continue the march that King had planned in support of the sanitation workers. He promised to keep the Poor People’s Campaign, and carry out the march to Washington. But he recognized that the political situation had changed. Riots burned in dozens of cities already, with no sign of stopping. Stokely Carmichael was going live right around this same time calling for the Black revolution. The window for nonviolence as a dominant, national organizing strategy was closing fast.
Reporter: Dr. Abernathy, what does the death of Dr. King mean to the policy of nonviolence?
Abernathy: Well, it only means that those of us who are dedicated to nonviolence will have to intensify our efforts and work with all of our power to seek to save this society. That is, if it can be saved, because, as Martin Luther King said over and over again, violence is not only immoral, but it is impractical.
Newkirk: He sounds less confident, more unsure about nonviolence as a philosophy than he or King had been before. He offered a fallback defense instead: that the violence of rioting or race war would only invite police and military crackdowns that would destroy Black communities.
As he spoke, those fears were already coming to pass. Mayors and governors across the country were asking for federal assistance in crushing rebellions and riots.
Journalist: The violence was by no means limited to Washington. Detroit tonight is under a curfew, and National Guard troops are on duty there. Guardsmen also have been mobilized in Chicago, where five blocks of predominantly Negro West Madison Avenue were reported afire, where looting broke out in the downtown Loop area, and in Boston, where a menacing crowd of young Negroes kept customers trapped in a supermarket for a time.
Newkirk: Politicians and pundits were already seizing on the riots, calling for law and order and worse. And in Memphis, among the activists and the remnants of the movement, grief and shock over the nationwide riots were widening rifts that had already been opened by years of stress and government infiltration. John Burl Smith was afraid the FBI or the police might finally make their move on him.
Burl Smith: “It was numbness” is about the best description I could give it because there weren’t any words, other than they were probably coming at us next.
Newkirk: Memphis was named after hallowed ground. Its ancient namesake was a capital of the Old Kingdom of Egypt. In the necropolis, at its center, there was a complex of pyramids and tombs where the kings of Egypt underwent their transformation from mortals to divine beings under the watch of the god of the underworld, Osiris. This significance might have originated in the placement of the capital on the Nile River, which itself is also tied to the old notions of rebirth and eternity. Thousands of miles and thousands of years away, settlers saw the bluff on the Mississippi River and thought there was something fitting about the name. In 1968, that city also became hallowed—a place where the life of a man was transformed into something beyond himself.
Douglas Edwards (journalist): The Reverend Abernathy, successor to Martin Luther King at the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the crowds shuffling past King’s coffin.
Abernathy: We have pledged to you that we are going to carry his work forward. Now, let us not do anything at this particular time that will discredit his life. He lived so nobly.
Tony Brunton (journalist): National Guardsmen, fixed bayonets, behind them helmeted city policemen with shotguns, submachine guns, and rifles, pushing the crowd back [Crowd singing], from time to time [Crowd singing: “Black and white together.”] asking them to move back for their own protection, the police said. Now they have moved back at the request of the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, the man who will be taking over for Dr. King, the leader of the Southern Christian conference. He asked them to move back.
(Crowd singing: “We shall overcome some day.”)