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They Hate Him

Leading the Memphis sanitation workers’ march was the last thing that Rev. Martin King wanted to do.   His workload, and stress had increased since his open condemnation of the Vietnam War on 4 April 1967.   He had recently began to build an independent political party, and explore the possibility for a Presidential run in 1972, with his friend and political ally Dr. Benjamin Spock running as Vice-President.   More important, he was in the midst of planning a Poor People’s March in Washington that summer.  This march would be in support of all who worked for substandard wages, no matter their skin color.  An ambitious undertaking, he hoped to galvanize black, Latino, indigenous Americans and whites into a political unity that could perhaps turn into greater political and economic power. 

Death threats, while always a reality of his work, had spiked to a beyond-the-looking-glass level since April 1967.*  Although the volume of threats numbed the individual sting of each, the accumulative effect resulted in a year of extraordinary stress, which King countered with his vices of choice: food and tobacco.  His associates teased him about his recent weight gain, and all noticed that his smoking had increased.  In fact, during the third week of February 1968, his personal physician diagnosed him with severe exhaustion, and ordered him to rest.

Dr. King felt that he didn’t have time to rest.  He didn’t have as much time for his family as he wanted.  He didn’t even have time to handle the recent inheritance he had received from famed writer/poet/wit Dorothy Parker only months before.  And he certainly didn’t have time to spend in Memphis.  On top of that, every single one of his associates advised him not to take part in the sanitation worker’s strike, in large part because it would distract from the Poor People’s March.

Rev. James Lawson had been updating King on a regular basis about the Memphis situation since the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker.  Lawson urged King to come.  After awhile, King slowly came to the opinion that going to Memphis wasn’t a mere courtesy, but rather a necessity.  Over the objections of his inner circle, Marty argued that the sanitation workers’ strike embodied the very purpose of the Poor People’s Campaign.  Since the passage of laws ending Jim Crow, King’s attention had turned to issues of economic and political equality. He reasoned, what’s the sense in fighting for the right to sit in a restaurant if one does not have the coin to eat there.  The result would be identical to de jure segregation.  And here, Martin wondered how he could advocate for the working poor in a grand public relations move, yet turn his back on workers who wanted his help in a crisis situation.

Rev. King told Lawson that he would be willing to come, but that he couldn’t clear his calendar until 18 March.  So COME scheduled the demonstration for the the 22nd of that month, thus giving Martin the opportunity to speak and meet with community leaders about the sanitation and other issues.  King spoke to a crowd of 17,000 on the 18th, but an unexpected spring blizzard forced organizers to postpone the march until the 28th.** Instead of spending time there as planned, King had to fly directly to Memphis from New York on the morning of 28 March. 

The march began like many others King had participated in, with the linking of arms and the singing of “We Shall Overcome.”  But soon after it started, pandemonium erupted.  As attorney William Pepper described the scene:

The sounds of glass breaking, isolated at first, became louder and more frequent.  Youth ran alongside the march line, ignoring the marshals’ instruction.  Chaos descended, and Dr. King was persuaded to leave the area.  A car was flagged down and he was taken to the [Holiday Inn] Rivermont Hotel at the direction of the police, being escorted by motorcycle officer Lieutenant Marion Nicholas.

Dr. King had never experienced violence at any of his previous marches, and this was particularly troubling.  Not only had the violence resulted in looting and massive property damage,  it also led to the shooting death of sixteen-year-old Larry Payne. Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb responded by immediately setting a city-wide curfew, and calling in the National Guard. 

King’s plans to lead a more massive Poor People’s March in Washington, DC later that year were now in jeopardy.  The reasoning went that if he couldn’t handle a much smaller march without it breaking into violence, then why allow him to lead a huge one in the nation’s capitol?

This question weighed heavily on King, his associates and the rest of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).  In a 30 March meeting held in Atlanta, King drew nearly unanimous SCLC support to return to Memphis, allow enough time to prepare and interact with local participants, and lead a peaceful march.

After a minor flap over King and company’s accommodations played out in local newspapers, they returned to Memphis on 3 April 1968.***   Authorities delayed their flight momentarily after someone anonymously phoned in a bomb threat.  Security finally cleared the plane for takeoff, and it safely landed in Memphis shortly afterward. 

That night, King addressed an audience at the Church of God in Christ headquarters located at Mason Temple.  It’s clear that the flood of death threats, including the one experienced that morning, lay somewhere in the back of his mind, as evidenced by this speech’s most often-cited passage:

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. 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 tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

King held meetings the following day while his attorneys fought to allow the second march to proceed as planned on 8 April.  Judge Bailey Brown ruled in favor of the march, so King and his associates began the task of organizing in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, only a slight change of venue from their usual first-floor space.  

After a long day, King and his associates looked forward to dining at the house of Mrs. and Rev. Samuel Kyles (for some reason called “Billy” by friends).  Kyles knocked on the door of room 306, alerting its occupants, Martin and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, that the car had arrived to take him to his place.  King and Ralph took a few minutes to finish dressing and grooming, before exiting.  Once they reached the balcony outside, Abernathy ducked back into the room because, as he told King, he forgot to put on some after-shave lotion.  By this time, Rev. Kyles had moved away some distance from the door, as Rev. Andrew Young emerged from his room adjusting his coat.  King leaned over the balcony railing to chat with friends standing below in the parking lot.  Among them were Solomon Jones, a local hearse driver who volunteered to be King’s chauffeur during his stay in Memphis; venerable civil rights activist Rev. James Orange; Rev. James Bevel, who jockeyed with Abernathy over the Number Two position at SCLC; Ben Branch, a prominent jazz/rock saxophonist; and Rev. Jesse Jackson, Senior.  

Waiting for Abernathy, King joked with those around him while intermittently taking a drag off a recently lit Kool.  He teased Kyles about his wife forcing him to eat filet mignon or something equally inappropriate-- or worse yet cold ham and Kool-Aid.  Kyles assured him that his wife had prepared a soul-food feast. King then invited Jackson to join them for dinner, and Jesse accepted.  He then turned to Branch, asking the musician to play “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” one of Marty’s favorite gospel songs, at an upcoming event. 

No sooner had Branch agreed to the request when a shot rang out at 6:01pm Central Standard Time.

I understand that there’s been a problem leaving comments here.  I had problems doing it myself.  After looking into the help forums, the only thing I can say is that this seems to be a problem that’s becoming more common with Blogger. 

Blogger suggests that if you have any problems commenting, try deleting cookies and cache.  When I did this, I found that I could comment on all the posts except for the most recent one.

I apologize for the situation, and plan to look into it further.

*King’s aide, former United States UN Ambassador Andrew Young said that the death threats were becoming so common during this last year that they started joking about them.  Martin would acknowledge that they were all in mortal danger, but he promised that if one of them should be picked off that he, Dr. King himself, would preach them the best funeral they could have ever had. 

**A near-record 16.2 inches of snow fell on Memphis during that week. 

***Lt. Nicholas told King that he ordered him to the Holiday Inn Riverfront because it was a more secure location than the place where he usually stayed, the corner first-floor rooms of the Lorraine Motel.  So when booking this second trip, King’s planners reserved a room at the Rivermont.  A number of local op-ed pieces chided King for staying in the white-owned Holiday Inn, which for years had denied lodging for African Americans because of Jim Crow, instead of the black-owned Lorraine.  King’s planners acquiesced to these opinions, canceling the reservation at the Rivermont, and booking the usual first-floor rooms at the Lorraine. 

This post first appeared on The X Spot, please read the originial post: here

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They Hate Him


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