Feature

April 4th, 1968

Memphians remember Martin Luther King’s final crusade.

by Mark Jordan

The photos accompanying this article were take by Dr. Robert Brittingham, a professor of economics at Christian Brothers University. A participant in the marches, he took the photos with a miniature Minox camera, roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes. Brittingham was 29 at the time of the March. He left Memphis shortly afterward but returned to CBU in 1989. This is the first time his photos have been published.

hen the shot that killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rang out in the early evening sky of April 4, 1968, it was largely heard as the death knell of the civil-rights movement. It was certainly a dark turning point, the day the spirit of purpose and righteousness that had pervaded the movement since the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 turned into the chaos and confusion of a society that found itself embroiled in a distant war it couldn’t understand, coping with a counterculture it couldn’t contain, and that, almost nightly, it seemed, was watching its best and brightest, from the grunts in the rice patties to the president of the United States, die senselessly on the evening news.

But in truth, the civil-rights movement that ended that day on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel was already far removed from the victories of Little Rock, Birmingham, and Washington, D.C. The movement’s leadership, once united, was by the spring of ’68 splintering, disagreeing over goals and tactics. And, making matters more complicated, new, younger, more militant groups were emerging with their own agendas and controversial methods. The fight for racial parity had become several different struggles: for better working conditions, for better economic opportunity, for the rights of the disenfranchised and poor, and for legal justice.

By ’68, Jim Crow was dying. The lunch counters, schools, and universities were slowly integrating. African Americans were beginning to exercise their constitutional right to vote. By ’68, King had begun to reconceive the civil-rights movement as a struggle for economic justice.

“The dispossessed of this nation – the poor, both white and Negro – live in a cruelly unjust society,” King wrote in The Trumpet of Conscience. “They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty.”

The grand expression of King’s new emphasis on poverty was to be the Poor People’s Campaign, a massive demonstration planned for the summer of ’68 that would march 3,000 poor to Washington, D.C., where they would camp “until the legislative and executive branches of the government take serious and adequate action on jobs and income.”

But in the spring ’68, while his staff hurriedly made preparations for the PPC, King found himself distracted by rapidly developing events in Memphis. Thirteen hundred of the city’s sanitation, sewer, and road workers were striking, demanding safer working conditions, better pay, and redress for grievances. They picketed, carrying placards that read “I Am A Man,” in defiance of their treatment by the city. In Memphis, it seemed there was a movement that embodied the very ideas King was trying to promote with the PPC.

“They really did treat you like you were less than a man,” says John, a 36-year veteran of the Memphis Sanitation Department who doesn’t want his last name used. “[The city government] acted like they were doing you a favor, even though you were the one doing their work. They paid you when and what they wanted, and never gave two cents about your well-being. If you were hurt on the job, well, tough luck.”

But in the winter of ’68, events compounded to make the situation unbearable. On January 30th, a rain-drenched Tuesday, 21 sewer workers, unable to work in the weather, were sent home without pay. T.O. Jones, head of the then-struggling Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, seized the opportunity to make demands on the city for better pay and a formal grievance procedure for union members.

Negotiations between AFSCME and the city seemed to be progressing when, on February 1st, events turned tragic.

“It’d been raining pretty hard all day. We were all glad to be heading back to the dump,” John says. “But no sooner had we pulled in than someone comes up and tells us that two fellas had gotten killed.”

Echol Cole and Robert Walker, both new to the job, had been standing inside the collection barrel of their garbage truck to avoid the downpour, when the ram that pushes the trash to the back of the barrel short-circuited and crushed the two men in its path. Injuries, and occasionally deaths, from equipment were a common hazard for Memphis sanitation workers in the ’60s. Those workers, however, received no compensation for injuries or deaths on the job, just some back pay, a one-month paycheck, and $500.

AFSCME now added safety to its list of demands. Talks with the city quickly broke down and AFSCME called a strike, a move outlawed by a 1966 injunction. But by now, the sanitation workers’ cause was being taken up by a broad range of support groups. The national office of AFSCME had already lent the strikers their full support, and now groups like the NAACP, the Congress On Racial Equality, and a coalition of white and black Memphis ministers were helping to plan and organize as well. One of those ministers, Dr. James Lawson, invited his friend and mentor Martin Luther King to Memphis to speak to the strikers.

“When I heard Dr. King was coming, well, that was the best,” says John. “That made us all feel like we were important, that our troubles mattered. … After all these years, I’m still picking up trash, but at one time a man like Dr. King found my troubles important enough to risk his life. That’s something really special.”

After a rally and a meeting with strike organizers in mid-March, King agreed to come back to Memphis to lead a protest march on the 22nd. But unseasonable weather left 16 inches of snow on the ground that day, and the march was cancelled.

“Looking back on it now, I think that snowstorm was a blessing,” says local NAACP executive director Johnnie Turner, who in ’68 was a young city school teacher and an activist in the movement. “There was a lot of fear in the city leading up to the day, and I don’t think a lot of people would have shown up. But with the snow, it gave people time to reflect. To think about the righteousness of their purpose and give them strength for when the march finally did come on March 28th.”

That day would test the strength of everyone involved. By the 28th the weather was clear and warm, and thousands showed up to walk with Dr. King through downtown Memphis.

“I had been in previous marches, but they paled in comparison,” Turner says. “We were in the middle of the crowd, and when we turned onto Beale off of Hernando, you could tell that the beginning of the march was already turned on Main.”

Perhaps inevitably, organizers soon lost control of the large, charged-up crowd as some protesters turned violent. Police responded in kind, and soon King’s nonviolent march had turned into a full-blown riot.

“I had my 14-year-old twin brothers with me,” Turner says. “All I could think about was finding them and getting out of there.”

With his appearance turned into a PR nightmare, King became determined to hold a nonviolent rally in Memphis. Another march was scheduled for April 8th. While attorneys prepared for an April 4th court date to battle a city injunction against such a protest, King returned to Memphis on April 3rd to meet with strike supporters.

That night, King was supposed to speak at the Mason Temple but stayed in his room at the Lorraine Motel on Mulberry Street, complaining he was not feeling well. But the temple was packed with people who wanted to hear King, their leader, speak to them. With a thunderstorm pounding down on the city, King got himself out of bed and headed to the temple.

“We always used to sit on the floor level, but that night we had to sit in the balcony, and we had gotten there early,” Turner recalls. “Everybody was so excited to hear Dr. King speak. We needed it. We lived for it.”

King looked tired and ill as he took the podium and began to speak:

… If I were standing at the beginning of time … and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in? Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty and say, “If you would allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.”…

“At the time we just thought: what a beautiful speech,” recalls Turner. “But looking back on it you realize he knew he was going to die. It’s kind of consoling because you realize he was trying to prepare us. … All I remember about April 4th is how excited I was that I was going to get to hear him speak again.”

“I was in high school at Melrose High School,” says National Civil Rights Museum director Beverly Robertson, remembering April 4, 1968. “It was a school day and we had gotten home and were getting ready for supper. It was just after 6 p.m., and it came over the television that Dr. King had been shot at the Lorraine. At first there was just silence throughout the house, then we just stared at the television waiting for news. Then, around 7 p.m., they came on and said Dr. King was dead. … We were so upset. Why did he have to come to Memphis to get killed? Why did this have to happen here and now?”

One of the first on the scene at the Lorraine following the shooting was Memphis Press Scimitar veteran crime reporter Wayne Chastain, a 38-year-old Texas native.

“I had been at The Peabody eating a sandwich when I overheard someone say King had been shot at the Lorraine,” Chastain recalls. “At that time, one of the TV stations operated out of The Peabody’s basement where the health club is now. So, I headed downstairs to see if they had heard anything, and as I was going down the stairs they were rushing up them with their cameras in hand. So, I turned around and headed over there.”

Chastain beat the TV reporters and became the first reporter to question many of the witnesses about what happened that day. His interviews with King’s chauffeur Solomon Jones and with people in and around the South Main address from which the fatal bullet came led Chastain to write a story, published the next afternoon, that said the fatal shot came from the bushes across the street from the motel. The next morning The Commercial Appeal came out with a story saying the shot was fired from the second story of a flophouse at 418 S. Main.

“That’s when all hell broke loose,” Chastain says. “That’s when the stories began to get all tangled and confused, so that now the truth is so hard to get at.”

Over the next few months, the now-familiar tale of James Earl Ray began to unravel: Identified, pursued, discovered two months later in London, extradited. Ray soon fired his original lawyers and abandoned plans to plead not guilty. He made a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty in exchange for them not asking for the death penalty. Soon after, Ray retracted his confession, and while behind bars, has slowly built up over the years the convoluted conspiracy theory that portrays him as the patsy of an assassin known only as “Raoul.”

Helping Ray push his conspiracy theory has been London-based attorney William Pepper. And helping Pepper wage his Tennessee court battles has been reporter-turned-lawyer Chastain.

“There’s been a number of conflicts in my career,” Chastain says. “I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be a psychologist.”

While still a reporter for the Press-Scimitar, Chastain attended night law classes and earned his degree in 1974, and was admitted to the bar that same year. And almost as soon as he had embarked on his new career, he found himself embroiled in the Ray case again. Chastain worked as an unpaid assistant to Ray attorney James Lesar in the ’70s. And in 1993, he joined Pepper’s legal team as the pair began their long, so far fruitless, quest to win Ray the trial he never had.

But whether the truth will ever pass Ray’s lips now seems unlikely. The legal case has been taken out of the court of Judge Joe Brown, who has been largely sympathetic to Pepper’s conspiracy theories. And just last week, the district attorney’s office released the findings of their investigation and concluded that no such conspiracy existed and that they see no value in pursuing any further indictments in the King case.

Meanwhile, Ray lays dying of liver disease in a Nashville prison hospital. Slipping in and out of conciousness, he remains adamant that everything he knows about King’s death will only become public through a trial.

And though their hopes are fading with their client’s life, Chastain says he and Pepper will also pursue their case to the end.

“I’ve always had my doubts about what happened that night, and no one’s ever been able to put them to rest,” says Chastain. “Some people say you should concentrate on the man’s life, not his death. But I don’t think you can separate the two. History deserves an answer to what really happened that day in 1968.”

While the events that would lead to King’s death were unraveling, Jacqueline Smith was singing. In ’68, Smith was a junior at North Memphis’ Douglass High School, a star pupil, and a member of the student council with serious aspirations of becoming an opera singer. She showed few signs then, friends say, of becoming the fiercely dedicated protester she is today. No one knows, in fact, if the petite but intense Smith was even concerned about the strike going on in her hometown or if she was excited that King was coming. Well, Smith knows, but she isn’t talking.

“I’m not going to talk about that,” says Smith from her couch. “Where I was 30 years ago, that stuff isn’t important. I’m here to protest the National Civil Rights Museum. I’m here to emphasize the teachings of Dr. King.”

Smith has been doing just that, in word and deed, for more than a decade from her tiny encampment on the sidewalk just across Mulberry Street from the former Lorraine Motel. After graduating from Douglass in ’69, Smith’s focus began to change. She turned down a voice scholarship to the University of Southern Mississippi, sang briefly in Chicago, attended State Tech, and worked at Sears Crosstown before landing a job as a maid and desk clerk at the Lorraine Motel, a job that also provided free boarding.

In 1988, when organizers of the National Civil Rights Museum closed the Lorraine for construction, Smith barricaded herself inside one of the rooms. When authorities finally extricated her, Smith, following King’s example of non-violent resistance, set up camp across the street and has been there, by her own count, about 21 hours a day in heat, rain, snow, and even ice storms.

“I just think the Lorraine could be put to better use as a place to help the hungry, homeless, and unemployed,” Smith says. “Dr. King wouldn’t have wanted $9 million spent on a building for him. He wouldn’t have wanted the people who lived there to be thrown out. He wouldn’t have wanted this place to be turned into a fancy tourist trap.”

On March 2nd, Smith quietly passed the 10th anniversary of her protest the same way she did the 3,652 days that came before it, waking early, going to a supporter’s home to bathe and change, and returning to her base – not much more than a couch, chair, table, and a few signs – to resume her vigil. Smith’s anniversary came and went with little fanfare, a sign, perhaps, that the general public has lost interest in her and her cause. But Smith remains steadfast.

“I’m determined to remain here because I’m determined to stay in my community,” she says. “All of downtown is being destroyed by gentrification. In Greenlaw, just to our north, people who have lived in the area their whole lives are being told to clean up their homes or sell. And if they don’t sell, their land will be taken from them. These people can’t afford to clean up their homes. You can’t just come into their neighborhood and tell them to clean up or else.

“I don’t have anything against the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Dr. King, but I feel we should focus on community service as well,” she continues. “Dr. King was a Christian, and the principles of Christianity are giving, serving, helping. I feel our energies would be better served giving the homeless a place to live, serving the hungry something to eat, and helping the unemployed find a job. If we could just make that part of the commemoration. If we could just instill Dr. King’s philosophy into it, we’d all be better off. Giving, serving, helping. That’s why Dr. King came to Memphis. That’s what Dr. King died for.” n


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