Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"The Day of Violence Is Here": The Memphis Sanitation Strike and the Death of Dr. King

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage, I describe civil rights leader Martin Luther King's involvement in the sanitation workers' strike in Memphis, Tennessee and King's assassination.

Martin Luther King, Jr., spent the early months of 1968 planning a Poor People’s March, based on his triumphant 1963 March on Washington. King conceived of the march as a means of responding to a noticeable white backlash to the African American freedom struggle. Many whites, in contradiction of objective evidence, now believed that black people had gained unfair advantages over white people. Across the country, white voters reacted angrily to the urban uprisings in places like the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, in Detroit, and in Newark. White voters who had backed liberal, or at least moderate, Democrats began in 1966 to support conservative “law and order” Democrats and Republicans who promised to crack down on lawless inner city youths and drug-taking anti-war protestors.

King hoped that by focusing on poverty he would be attacking an issue that transcended race. Whites, in fact, constituted the largest number of poor people in America, poor whites heavily concentrated in deep Southern states like Mississippi and the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee. Poverty, King suspected, lay behind the white resentments that fed anti-black racism.

The proposed march proved highly controversial within the SCLC. Who would be the poor people who would participate in the march? How would poverty be defined? In an atmosphere in which African Americans increasingly questioned the wisdom of non-violence, one staff member asked, “What’s gonna happen when we bring those people to Washington and Stokely’s gonna be there?” (He was referring to Stokely Carmichael, the controversial black nationalist leader who advocated self defense to the point of violence for black people).) King pushed the project on, in spite of the objections. Details remained vague even as a humble strike by sanitation workers created what became an enormous distraction.


Mostly African American, Memphis sanitation workers lived below the national poverty line even though they worked fulltime. About 40 percent received such low wages that they qualified for welfare. The workers lacked health insurance coverage, paid vacation time, a pension plan, and any place at the worksite to shower or eat. These collectors carried heavy, leaky garbage containers, which often showered them with rotting food, dirty diapers and maggots. Tragedy struck on February 1. As Taylor Branch describes the incident:

"Foreman Willie Crane’s five-man crew had headed for the dump in one of the compressor trucks . . . Only two of the four collectors could squeeze into the driver’s cab after hauling their tubs on foot, and the two junior men normally jockeyed from handholds and footrests on the outside . . . [T]orrential cloudbursts late Thursday drove them through side-loading splits into the huge storage cylinder itself . . . Crain heard screams . . . Investigators would conclude that a freak shift by an onboard shovel may have shorted wet wires to the separate motor. A witness looking through her kitchen window said she saw one man struggle almost out before his raincoat or something grabbed and pulled him back down head first, leaving parts of both legs exposed. "

The compressor fatally crushed both sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker. Unable to take any more exploitation, 930 of Memphis’ 1,100 sanitation workers walked off the job on February 12, 1968 and demanded safety equipment, paid days off during rain, better pay, benefits and recognition of their American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Union.

King saw that the fight of the Memphis sanitation workers fit perfectly into his Poor Peoples’ campaign, and though advisors – worried about the ugly atmosphere in Memphis -- urged him to not get involved, he supported their cause and agreed to appear there. King arrived in town on March 28 and because of flight delays at the Atlanta airport, he was late for a scheduled protest rally. Events spun out of control.

A group of thirty black students with rocks and clubs marched down Beale Street, heart of the city’s blues district. Suddenly the protestors heard loud pops that sounded like gunshots. The sound, instead, marked the cascade of shattered storefront windows being broken by angry marchers along Beale and Main streets. Another group destroyed a parked car when city marshals commanded the protestors to halt. King and his close associate, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, escaped the chaos as the looting continued. The day saw nine police officers injured, including one beaten by five enraged teenagers with sticks used to support protest placards. In addition, 200 protestors would be arrested and sixty injured. One police officer backed a 16-year-old suspected rioter into a stairway and blasted him point blank with a sawed-off shotgun.

Feeling completely defeated, that night King watched Memphis news coverage of the riot. King considered canceling the Poor People’s March. The rioting was a gift to the movement’s enemies in the FBI, he said. “Maybe we just have to admit that the day of violence is here,” he said in a tone of resignation. “And maybe we just have to give up and let violence take its course.”

Eventually, he overcame his defeatism and said he had to try to organize a peaceful rally in Memphis before he could successfully lead one in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, the garbage piled up in Memphis, a reality the city would face for 64 days. King left the city to keep appointments in Washington, D.C. Southern newspapers claimed that MLK’s stand as a leader of nonviolent reform had been proven a lie and ridiculed his decision to leave Memphis as cowardly. “Chicken a la King,” one Memphis Commercial Appeal headline read while the St. Louis Globe-Democrat labeled the Nobel Peace laureate “one of the most menacing men in America today.”


A plane bomb scare delayed King’s return to Memphis on April 3. The longtime activist had been through many such warnings before. When King arrived, an army of uniformed and undercover Memphis police and FBI agents followed him. He should have been the safest man in America. Hoover, however, violated normal FBI policy, refusing to inform the civil rights leader of death threats, a policy the agency had followed for years. King checked into Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, a location advertised in the local press.

King was scheduled to speak to sanitation workers that night at the city’s Mason Temple but, as tornados and harsh thunderstorms struck the region, received a report that only 2,000 were at that night’s massive speaking venue that could hold up to 14,000. King asked his top lieutenant, Ralph Abernathy, to speak in his place. Abernathy sensed upon arrival the crowd’s disappointment when they didn’t see King enter the hall as well. Abernathy called King and told him the Mason Temple was “a core crowd of sanitation workers who had braved a night of hellfire to hear him and they would feel cut off from a lifeline if he let them down.”

Cheers rattled the building when the audience spotted King, who would treat them to the most prophetic speech of his career. With the sound of strong winds and thunder ringing outside, King recalled when he was stabbed in the Harlem bookstore and how a doctor told The New York Times that he would have died if he had sneezed. “I want to say that I am happy that I didn’t sneeze,” he said, “because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960 when students all over the South started sitting in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to the great wells of democracy . . . If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma . . .”

King recalled other significant highlights of the civil rights struggle. He then compared himself to Moses, who according to the Bible led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt but was allowed by God to see the Promised Land only from the summit of a mountain.

"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 I’ve looked over. And I have seen the promised land. And 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! So I’m happy tonight! I’m not worried about anything! I’m not fearing any man! My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"

On the podium his fellow preachers cried as King sat, soaked in sweat. The crowds cheered and many embraced him. King that night suffered from his chronic insomnia, charged with excitement after his speech. He piled into a car with Abernathy and another longtime friend, Bernard Lee, and the three fellow civil rights warriors spent “a long night on the town,” as Branch reported. King would sleep late on Thursday, April 4.

The night of King’s epic speech at the Mason Temple, an escaped convict named James Earl Ray also arrived in Memphis after driving from Atlanta. Ray, a small-time crook previously convicted of armed robbery targeting gas stations and liquor stores, broke out of a Missouri prison April 23, 1967. Living in hiding, he heard rumors of Southern businessmen who would pay a bounty to anyone who killed King. Reading in the newspapers that King was staying at Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, Ray rented a cheap room at Bessie Brewer’s flophouse, conveniently across a parking lot from where King was staying. Among Ray’s few belongings was a .30-06 Remington Gamemaster rifle.

The afternoon of April 4, 1968, King was in a jolly mood, and several fellow ministers and the activists gathered in Room 306, swapping good-natured jokes about each other, about women they knew and about their past together. The group planned an early supper before a mass meeting to discuss the upcoming Memphis March. The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s civil rights group Operation Breadbasket had a band scheduled to perform that night. From the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, King shouted to the band’s saxophonist Ben Branch that he wanted the group to play the black spiritual “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” The song’s lyrics powerfully evoked King’s recent life.

"Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand
I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m alone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me to the light."

“Play it real pretty,” King told Branch. “O.K., Doc, I will,” Branch promised. King turned back toward his room to get a topcoat. It was 6:01 p.m.

In seconds, the sharp report of a rifle cracked through the sky. From across the street, Ray had put in his sights a man called a spiritual leader, a modern Moses, a revolutionary, Nobel laureate, an agitator, and a subversive -- and pulled the trigger. The bullet sailed through the air and passed through King’s jaw and neck, leaving an enormous wound. The bullet severed the knot from King’s necktie, which flew off and landed far from his body. King collapsed. His closest friends ran to be with him, stood next to his lifeless body sprawled on the balcony, and pointed in the direction of the dingy flophouse across the parking lot where the rifle blast had erupted. King was 39.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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