Friday, April 4, 2008

Memphis Magazine Commemorates Dr. Martin Luther King

Posted By on Fri, Apr 4, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Memphis magazine's April issue commemorates the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The issue includes perspectives on the events of spring 1968 and the aftermath in Memphis as only those who lived it can provide. Award-winning writer Hampton Sides, who grew up in Memphis and served as "Mayor for a Day" with Henry Loeb as a youth, contributed a stirring essay on the legacy of April 4, 1968.

Ten local civil rights pioneers, including Rev. James Lawson, whose invitation brought King to Memphis the last time, Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles, who stood steps away from King as the fatal shot was fired, and Maxine Smith, local NAACP executive secretary from 1962-1995, share their first-person narratives of spring 1968.

The story of the making of the National Civil Rights Museum details how coalitions of white and black leaders came together in 1988 the way that they couldn't in 1968 to transform the Lorraine Motel from the broken-down whorehouse it became after the assassination, to the internationally recognized symbol of hope it is today.

Finally, the timeline excerpted below gives us a sense of the swirling activity around King and the city during his last 31 hours, 28 minutes on earth, in Memphis:

In his final years, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had death on his mind. While watching news coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he turned to his wife, Coretta, and told her, "This is what is going to happen to me." All his adult life, this practitioner of nonviolence had been threatened, assaulted, and surrounded by people -- most of them white, some of them black -- who considered him their enemy. The FBI routinely released memos documenting his activities, with the heading "Martin Luther King -- Communist."

Andrew Young, one of the leaders of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, observed that King had questioned "fundamental patterns of American life" and had therefore "become the enemy" to many Americans.

So as he headed to Memphis in the spring of 1968, to hold what he hoped would be a peaceful demonstration in support of the sanitation workers' strike here, King knew his life was in grave danger. "There's no way in the world you can keep somebody from killing you," he told a reporter, "if they really want to kill you."

And he knew Memphis would be a challenge. The sanitation strike had dragged on into its fifth week, and the situation seemed hopeless. Jerry Wurf, international head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) had complained bitterly, "I spent half my time trying to keep that city from burning down, while the god-damned mayor was pouring gasoline on the situation as I ran around pulling matches out of people's hands."

King's supporters had dire premonitions. On the night following the dreadful riot of March 28th, the Rev. James Jordan, pastor of historic Beale Street Baptist Church, woke up in tears. He later told friends that he'd had a nightmare: "Dr. King's picture came before me. I saw the Lord had shown me Dr. King's death."

When King decided to return to Memphis on April 3rd, to salvage his reputation and show the world that he could indeed preach the gospel of nonviolence with a second march on April 8th, a bomb threat delayed his flight. Ralph Abernathy, his second-in-command at the SCLC, reassured him, "Nobody is going to kill you, Martin," but King still seemed deeply troubled. Later that day, however, he told supporters, "I would rather be dead than afraid."

Then came his famous speech that blustery evening of April 3, 1968, at Mason Temple. With the wind howling outside and banging the shutters around the packed auditorium, he seemed to pause and reflect for a few seconds, then said, "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 have 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 ..."

Within 24 hours, he would be felled by an assassin's bullet ...

To follow the final 31 hours, 28 minutes of King's life, from the time he landed at the airport until James Earl Ray's bullet felled him on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, read Memphis magazine senior editor Michael Finger's definitive timeline.

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