King's Last March
In the spring of 1968, King led a disastrous demonstration of striking garbage workers in Memphis. When he was killed shortly afterwards, King was trying to prove the power of non-violence. Tune in for "King's Last March" Saturday at 3 and Sunday at six.
Martin Luther King Jr. is jostled in Memphis as the march he's leading on March 28, 1968 turns violent. Photo courtesy University of Memphis Libraries.
In the segregated South, black garbage workers stood on the lowest run of the social order. Martin Luther King, Jr. died while lending help to garbage collectors in Memphis, Tennessee who were fighting for equal rights.
King went to Memphis in the spring of 1968. Black sanitation workers had been on strike since February, protesting low wages and miserable working conditions. James Lawson, a long-time civil rights activist and a Memphis minister, asked his friend King to come help. Lawson was leading community efforts to support the striking workers. But negotiations with Memphis mayor Henry Loeb were stalled. As the strike dragged on, Lawson thought the garbage workers needed backing from a national figure like King.
On March 28, 1968, King led a protest march on City Hall that turned out to be ones of the worst of King's career as a civil rights leader. The marchers paraded down Beale Street, the famed Memphis thoroughfare. King was at the head of the column. Then, a number of young African Americans began breaking storefront windows. James Lawson was leading the march with King. When they turned on to Main, Lawson says, they saw "lengths of police in riot gear across the street."
The marchers turned around. Then, police attacked with tear gas and clubs. Peaceful marchers were caught up in the same violence as youthful looters. One teenager, a suspected looter, was shot to death. Dozens of protestors were injured and nearly 300 black people arrested. Stores in the black section of town were looted and burned. Tear gas drifted across the neighborhood. Journalists captured the debacle on film and broadcast it live on local radio.
Dr. King returned to Memphis six days later to prove again that he could lead a peaceful protest. He spent the better part of April 3, 1968 meeting with aides and local organizers at the Lorraine Motel, where he was staying. A mass meeting was planned that night at the Mason Temple. The speech King gave that night, the last night of his life, became one of the most iconic in his long and accomplished speaking career. Many listeners were struck in hindsight by the way King talked about his own mortality on the eve of his assassination, "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life," King preached to the crowd. "Longevity has its place," he said and continued, "But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do 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."
Tune in for King's Last March Saturday at 3 and Sunday at six as part of our celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.