The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, has been burned into the memory of Americans as a few lines on a postcard: King lying bleeding on the balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, his friends pointing in unison in the direction where the gunshots came from… his speech the night before, in which he declared that he had “been to the mountaintop” and seen the “promised land.”
All but lost to history are the three deaths that preceded King’s in Memphis—what could be called the Black Lives Matter cases of their day.
King was not yet 40 years old, and he was growing tired; clashing with his lieutenants and keeping one eye on former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leaders like Stokely Carmichael who were leading a more radical and, increasingly, more popular Black Power movement among many young black Americans. The Detroit Riots in the summer of 1967 had turned many white Americans against the civil-rights movement, which they, encouraged by politicians and media figures on the right, were increasingly equating with violence and mayhem. In reality, the riots were being fueled by police violence against unarmed black citizens and the economic instability that metastasized as auto-industry jobs began to disappear, just when black workers had begun to gain access to them.
King had been cut off from Lyndon Johnson’s White House due to his public opposition to the Vietnam War. He was struggling to salvage his hopeful vision of nonviolent resistance in the face of growing frustration among many black Americans.
A year almost to the day before his death, on May 8, 1967, and four years after his famed “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington, King gave an interview to NBC News’ Sander Vanocur in which he lamented the human- and economic-resource-draining war and the deep persistence of racism.
“I think the biggest problem now,” King told Vanocur, “is we got our gains over the last 12 years at bargain rates, so to speak. It didn’t cost the nation anything. In fact, it helped the economic side of the nation to integrate lunch counters and public accommodations. It didn’t cost the nation anything to get the right to vote established. Now, we’re confronting issues that cannot be solved without costing the nation billions of dollars. Now I think this is where we’re getting our greatest resistance. They may put it on many other things, but we can’t get rid of slums and poverty without it costing the nation something.”
Months later, in November 1967, King launched the Poor People’s Campaign in Jackson, Mississippi, where Medgar Evers had died trying to register black voters. It was conceived at the urging of Marion Wright, the first black woman to pass the Mississippi bar and the director of the Jackson office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Wright had brought Sen. Robert Kennedy to the Delta to visit hungry families and children that year, and at his outraged urging, enlisted King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to bring the poor to Washington to let the country see their suffering.
The goal of the Poor People’s Campaign was to use nonviolent direct action to press for what King believed was a fundamental ingredient for full citizenship—economic security. King called it “‘the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.”
On Feb. 1, 1968 … the Poor People’s Campaign got its first test.
Echol Cole and Robert Walker, black sanitation workers in Memphis, were riding in the back of a rickety garbage truck when the vehicle’s compactor malfunctioned, crushing the two men to death. Cole was 36 years old and Walker just 30. Newspaper accounts at the time described the horror experienced by the men charged with prying the two men’s mangled bodies out of the wreckage.
Because Cole and Walker were hourly workers, they were not covered by workman’s compensation insurance. Neither had life insurance. Their families barely had enough money to bury them. According to the local paper, Walker’s wife was pregnant when he died.
Black sanitation workers in Memphis often lived below the poverty line, even when they worked full-time. Four in 10 qualified for food stamps to help them feed their families, and they received almost no benefits—no health insurance, no pensions, scant time off, and no paid vacations. On the job, they endured filthy working conditions that often sent them home covered in muck and sewage, while their white counterparts enjoyed clean places to shower and change their clothes. They could be sent home without pay at the whim of their supervisors and were subjected to epithets from the bosses and co-workers alike; called “boy” and worse on the job. The men had been trying unsuccessfully to organize a union for five years. When they walked out periodically, they did so with some support from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union, which had recognized their self-created local, 1733.
On Feb. 11, nearly 1,300 black sanitation workers decided they’d had enough. They walked off the job en masse, protesting Cole and Walker’s senseless deaths, and their meager pay and working conditions, starting with the lack of safety standards.
The striking sanitation workers wanted the city to recognize Local 1733 and enter into collective bargaining.
The strike would go on for 64 days. It polarized the city of Memphis, with white and black residents lining up on opposite sides. White residents sided with the city’s segregationist mayor, Henry Loeb, who refused to negotiate and sent police to end the strike by any means necessary. Beatings and mace were deployed against peaceful protesters, including prominent black leaders and even pastors who marched in support of the striking workers, who wore placards that read “I Am a Man”—signs that would become icons of Southern black resistance.
At the urging of a local pastor, Rev. James T. Lawson, King traveled to Memphis on March 18th to lead a nonviolent march on the sanitation workers’ behalf. In Memphis, King spoke to a crowd that numbered between 15,000 and 25,000, depending on who you ask. He recounted the story, in the Gospel of Luke, of the poor beggar Lazarus, and an unnamed rich man “who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.” When the rich man died, he was sent to Hell, where he spied Lazarus in Heaven, standing beside Abraham. Begging God for mercy, the rich man was told that he had his treasures on earth, and when he asked God to send Lazarus to his family to warn them of the dangers of profligacy, he was told, “if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
And with that, Dr. King said to those workers in Memphis that America just might go to Hell.
“And I come by here to say that America, too, is going to hell if she doesn’t use her wealth,” King thundered at the Mason hall. “If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she, too, will go to hell.”
King’s speech made the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike a national cause, attracting union support from around the country and more importantly, television cameras. King called for a general strike and added the right to union-organizing to his universal declaration of human rights. He vowed to return to Memphis four days later to lead a march through the city.
King’s return was delayed by a freak snowstorm that shut down the city of Memphis on March 21st—a day with not even rain in the forecast—but which ended with 17 inches of snow falling in 21 hours. Lawson reportedly joked that Mother Nature had delivered King his general strike.
When King returned to the city on March 28th, some 22,000 students skipped school to march with him. But the march soon got out of control after a small group broke off from the march and began smashing storefront windows, with some accused of looting, and others accused of hurling rocks at passing sanitation trucks and their police escorts. In response, Mayor Loeb declared a curfew, and the governor called up 4,000 National Guard troops.
At some point that afternoon, a 16-year-old black teenager named Larry Payne and his friends were accosted by police. Payne was one of nine children of Mason and Lizzie Mae Payne, a divorced couple between whose homes he and his siblings split their time. He had been seen by friends outside the venue, Clayborne Temple, where King was to speak. A UPI photographer would capture a photograph of Payne, standing warily nearby as a classmate is beaten by a police officer with a nightstick, and another young black man lies on the ground. Sometime later, Payne would confront Patrolman L.D. Jones, who would testify that he was following a group of young black men who were looting TVs from a Sears department store and carrying them to a nearby basement, and that when he ordered Payne out of the basement, he saw Payne’s left hand in the air, wielding a knife, and shot him in the stomach, killing him. No knife was ever found. A grand jury declined to indict the officer.
In the aftermath, the national news media, conservative commentators, and the FBI put the blame for the violence squarely on King. The city even went to court and to try to enjoin him from leading any further marches in Memphis. The Poor People’s Campaign, which was supposed to move next to Washington D.C., seemed in jeopardy.
King was deeply disturbed by the violence and he vowed to return to Memphis to try again, despite protests from his staff in Atlanta. He telephoned Lizzie Payne to console her and made plans to visit her upon his return to Memphis.
It was for that third try that King and his lieutenants set off for Memphis and checked into the Lorraine Motel on April 3rd, two days after Larry Payne’s funeral at the same church where King was to speak on the day of the riots.
When he was set to leave Atlanta, warning his wife, Coretta, that a price had been put on his head, his flight was delayed for over an hour as officials searched after receiving a bomb threat.
King delivered his final speech in the midst of a violent thunderstorm that kept many people from attending. His throat was reportedly sore and he had no prepared remarks. Some 1,300 members of the now-official AFSCME Local 1733 and their supporters gathered to hear him. He was introduced by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, whom he described in his opening remarks as “the best friend that I have in the world.”
King’s final speech is typically remembered for its rising final passage, “the Mountaintop,” but the bulk of it focused on economic justice, and the long, steady march of nonviolent protest.
“Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today. And also in the human-rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding. And I’m happy that He’s allowed me to be in Memphis.”
Within 24 hours, he was dead; his death inextricably linked to those of two men and a teenage boy whose lives and stories would soon be lost to history.