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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

While working on final details of the campaign, Dr. King had agreed to support a strike by Memphis sanitation workers who walked off the job on March 12, 1968, to secure better wages and working conditions. The dispute was a local labor dispute, lacking the larger civil rights implications that had characterized many of Dr. King's earlier campaigns.

When in Memphis, Dr. King always stayed in room 306 at the Lorraine Motel on the corner of Mulberry Street and Huling Avenue near downtown. It had opened in the 1920s as the Windsor, but was renamed the Lorraine when Walter and Loree Bailey bought it in 1942. During Jim Crow days, it was one of the few Memphis hotels in the city that accepted white and African-American guests. As a result, many African-American entertainers, including Nat "King" Cole and Louis Armstrong, stayed in the Lorraine while in the city even after the Jim Crow era had come to an end.

On March 28, while staying in room 306, he took a break from organizing the Poor People's Campaign to lead a march in Memphis along Beale Street onto Main. When marchers began to break windows and loot, Dr. King was whisked away. The following day, he led a second march kept peaceful by 4,000 National Guardsmen.

The incidents on March 28 raised questions about Dr. King's plans for the Poor People's Campaign. "We are fully determined to go to Washington," he said:

We feel it is an absolute necessity . . . . Riots are here. Riots are part of the ugly atmosphere. I cannot guarantee that riots will not take place this summer. I can only guarantee that our demonstration will not be violent. [Nixonland, p. 251]

On March 31, President Johnson shocked the Nation by announcing he would not run for reelection:

With American sons in the field far away, with the American future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world's hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office, the Presidency of your country.

He would initiate peace talks with North Vietnamese leaders.

His decision opened the Democratic nomination to Vice President Humphrey, former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, now representing New York in the Senate, and Senator Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota, who had been gaining momentum with anti-war forces. Political maneuvering and the approach to Hanoi absorbed media coverage.

On April 3, Dr. King addressed a rally at Mason Temple in Memphis in support of the sanitation workers' strike. He began by saying that if the Almighty allowed him to live in any period of history, he would tell the Lord, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy." After listing the great periods of history, beginning with Ancient Egypt, he said of his choice, "Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up." He explained:

But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding-something is happening in our world . . . .

And another reason that I'm happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we're going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn't force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them.

He was referring not just to the struggle for civil rights, but for peace at a time when the Nation was fighting in Vietnam. Those in the struggle, he said, must stay together and must recall that in both cases, "The issue is injustice." He had come to Memphis where the injustice was the city's refusal "to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers." But the issue was always the same, whether dealing with Bull Connor in Birmingham or companies that discriminate against or hold back African-Americans.

"Let us develop," he said, "a kind of dangerous unselfishness." He illustrated this odd phrase with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke, 10:25-37). An expert in religious law tried to trick Jesus by asking him, "Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus asked the man what the law of Moses says on this subject. The man replied that people must love the Lord and their neighbor. "Right!" Jesus replied. The man asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Dr. King summarized the reply:

But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn't stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended by saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the "I" into the "thou," and to be concerned about his brother.

(Dr. King did not note that in the time of Jesus, anyone hearing this parable would have known that the Samarians and Jews were bitter enemies. So the Good Samaritan's actions were unexpected.)

"Now you know," Dr King said, "we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn't stop." Perhaps, he speculated, they were headed for an ecclesiastical gathering and did not want to be late. Or perhaps a religious law prevented them from touching a human body 24 hours before the ceremony:

And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going to Jerusalem, or down to Jericho, rather to organize a "Jericho Road Improvement Association." That's a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the casual root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effort.

But I'm going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It's possible that these men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, "I can see why Jesus used this as a setting for his parable." It's a winding, meandering road. It's really conducive to ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you're about 2200 . . . feet below sea level. That's a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the "Bloody Pass."

Perhaps, he suggested, the priest and Levite were afraid the robbers were still around or that the injured man wasn't injured at all, but just a decoy to attract helpers who would be robbed:

And so the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"

That, in short, was why he was in Memphis on that day:

"If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question.

He told of an incident in New York City when a demented woman stabbed him in the chest. Based on the X-ray, he said, "It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had sneezed, I would have died." He added, "I am happy that I didn't sneeze." If he had, he would not have been around in 1960 for the sit-ins at lunch counters. Or in 1963 in Birmingham, or on the National Mall to tell people of his Dream, or 1964 for the Civil Rights Bill. "If I had sneezed, I would not have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great movement there." And if he had sneezed, he would not be in Memphis "to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering."

Friends and enemies had tried to discourage him from making the trip. "It really doesn't matter what happens now," his friends had told him. He got on the plane in Atlanta, and the flight was delayed to check all the luggage for bombs." He continued:

And then I got to 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 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. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. [Testament, p. 279-286]

That day, the sanitation workers were in court to secure a march permit, while a weary Dr. King debated leaders of the sanitation workers who wanted to adopt a violent approach. At the same time, he continued preparations for the Poor People's Campaign.

Around 5 p.m. on April 4, Dr. King received a report on the court proceedings. Later, he went on the motel balcony, joking with Dr. Abernathy, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and other associates standing with him and in the parking lot below.

In a flophouse across the street, a drifter and petty criminal named James Earl Ray was waiting for Dr. King to stand still just for a second.

In early March, Ray had been in Los Angeles after driving around the country and into Mexico in his white Mustang. He had taken dance lessons and attended bartender's school. He had altered his appearance with a "nose job" and used an alias. On March 17, he hopped into his Mustang and drove to New Orleans at a leisurely pace. After delivering a box of clothes he had brought with him to a friend's family on March 22, he learned that Dr. King would be in Selma to recruit for the Poor People's Campaign.

Ray drove to Selma, staying in the Flamingo Motel. Dr. King left on March 23, as did Ray, driving through Birmingham to Atlanta. He drove to Bessemer, Alabama, about 10 miles outside of Birmingham on March 29, where he bought a .243-caliber rifle with a 2 x 7 Redfield scope and twenty rounds of ammunition. After a night at a nearby Travelodge Motel, Ray returned to the store to exchange the rifle for a Remington Gamemaster Model 760, .30-060 caliber rifle.

Although Ray's later accounts of his movements differed, he appears to have returned to Atlanta. On April 1, the SCLC announced that Dr. King was scheduled to be in Memphis to lead a march on Friday, April 5. On April 3, Ray took the 7-hour drive to Memphis, checking in at the New Rebel Motel on Lamar Avenue under one of his aliases. The following day, he drove to South Main Street and parked near the rooming house across from the Lorraine Motel. He rented room 5B. [The account of Ray's travels from Posner, Gerald, chapters 25 ("Memphis Bound") and 26 ("The Alibi"), Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Random House, 1998]

At 6:01 p.m., on April 4, Ray finally got what he wanted. Dr. King stood still for a moment. Ray steadied his .30-'06 Remington and fired a shot into Dr. King's right cheek. He was pronounced dead an hour later, setting off riots in cities around the country.

Immediately after shooting Dr. King, Ray returned to his car and drove through Mississippi back to Atlanta. Fearful that police might be on the lookout for a white Mustang, he stayed on the side roads, adding time to what became an 11 hour drive. On April 5, he left the Mustang in the Capitol Homes housing project and took a bus to Cincinnati, arriving around 1:30 a.m. on April 5. By bus, he reached Detroit around 8 a.m. and took a taxi across the Ambassador Bridge into Windsor, Canada. He boarded a train for Toronto, where he stayed until April 22. From there, he took a bus to Montreal, hoping to find a way to England. The following day, he was indicted for the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On May 7, he took BOAC Flight 600 to London. [Killing, p. 237-246]

On June 8, Scotland Yard officers arrested Ray at London's Heathrow Airport while he was leaving an airliner bound from Lisbon, Portugal, to Brussels, Belgium. [Killing, p. 44-47] On July 18, he was taken aboard a C-135 U.S. Air Force jet for a flight to Millington Naval Air Base, 18 miles from Memphis. The flight left London in the dark of night and arrived in Tennessee in the dark of night to minimize not only press coverage but the threat of an attempt on Ray's life. With the fatal shooting of President Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, in mind, the government wanted to avoid the shooting of another assassin before justice could be served. [Killing, p. 55-56] He confessed to his crime on March 10, 1969, and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. James Earl Ray died in 1998.

On April 16, the city and sanitation workers reached an agreement that included union recognition, dues checkoff, promotions based on seniority, and a 10-cent an hour wage increase on May 1 and a 5-cent increase on September 1. The New York Times quoted a garbage collector as saying, "We won, but we lost a good man along the way." [Caldwell, Earl, "Sanitation Strike in Memphis Ends," The New York Times, April 17, 1968]

The assassination prompted final action on the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (Fair Housing Act). On April 10, even as riots continued in American cities, the Capitol was surrounded by National Guard troops who had been summoned in the wake of riots in the city. The House approved the Senate version of the bill, 250 to 171, with Republicans providing enough support to ensure passage.

President Johnson signed the legislation on April 11 in the East Room of the White House. The bill, he said, "had a long and stormy trip" since he began promoting the idea in 1966. He recalled a meeting in April of that year during which Dr. King and other distinguished citizens assembled to hear the President read a message calling for effective legislation "against discrimination in the sale and the rental of housing." Now, Dr. King was gone and the Nation was outraged at his loss and at the rioting that followed. However, "the voice of justice speaks again," he said in reference to the new legislation:

We just must put our shoulders together . . . . So I would appeal to my fellow Americans by saying, the only real road to progress for free people is through the process of law and that is the road that America will travel . . . .

This afternoon, as we gather here in this historic room in the White House, I think we can all take some heart that democracy's work is being done. In the Civil Rights Act of 1968 America does move forward and the bell of freedom rings out a little louder.

The new law expanded on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by prohibiting property owners from refusing to rent or sell a dwelling based on race, color, religion, national origin, or gender. It prohibited many common practices, such as blockbusting and redlining, that had hindered housing progress and distorted city housing patterns by encouraging white residents to move to white housing in the suburbs. The final roadblock to passage had been eliminated when the bill was amended in Congress to make conspiring to cause a riot a Federal crime - the very action that Southern leaders had complained of for a decade.

Updated: 10/17/2013
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