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That Day in Memphis


If the 20th Century has had the most dramatic impact on humanity in terms of economic, technological, and lifestyle change, then the 1960s are arguably the most turbulent decade within that 100 year period, with all due respect to the Great Depression and World War II.  Often referred to as simply The Sixties, the period encompassed wide ranging cultural, political and social developments. It  was a decade of controversy and divisiveness punctuated by several notable assassinations heralding political change.  Of these, the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has left long lasting repercussions in its wake.

King was a hugely popular public figure who represented a significant perceived threat to powerful interests. There were efforts to denigrate his reputation and even his legacy after his life had been extinguished, which in turn only served to elevate his ascension to martyrdom. This left the residue of strong evidence of conspiracy at a higher, often hidden level, which combined to generate a thriving industry devoted to the investigation of conspiracies and underhanded manipulations.

In addition and perhaps most tragically, the events that took place on April 4, 1968, in a city on the banks of the Mississippi, planted the seeds of suspicion, or at least shook the public’s collective faith in the integrity of the government and organized authority, a sentiment that continues to this day.

“Take me to the river
And wash me down
Won’t you cleanse my soul
Put my feet on the ground.”
-Al Green Mabon Hodges – Al Green Music JEC Pub. – BMI


King was again called to shepherd the disenfranchised when two garbage men in Memphis were killed on Feb.1 as a result of faulty equipment. This prompted the mobilization of the city’s predominately black sanitation workers to unionize and push for redress of long standing grievances with the municipal power structure.  These included issues of safety (the garbage men had been crushed by a trash compacter), a livable wage, overtime pay, and the elimination of the plantation mentality (all the laborers were black, while all the supervisors were white).  The Rev. James Lawson, current board president of the Los Angeles Branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and former pastor of Holman United Methodist Church, was a long time colleague of King and a fellow proponent of Mohandas Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance. He assumed the chairmanship of a strike committee.  As protestors and police clashed (involving the use of billy clubs, mace, and tear gas), negotiations stagnated, and tensions rose, Lawson requested the assistance of King to raise the awareness of the sanitation workers plight.


Upon his arrival in March, Dr. King again demonstrated the charisma that made him the most magnetic personality the Civil Rights movement had produced (and, ironically, a determining factor behind the fear and anger he aroused in less sympathetic circles).  He attracted an indoor crowd estimated at 25,000 on March 18, as he exhorted the group to bond.

“You are demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one black person suffers, if one black person is down, we are all down,” he said to the gathering at the Mason Temple during a quick stop over in Memphis.

The remainder of March saw him criss-crossing the country to drum up support for SCLC, the organization central to the birth of the civil rights movement and King’s own rise to national and international prominence.  As King continued with the planned rally in Washington, these trips were punctuated by stop overs in Memphis to maintain the media focus on the sanitation strike.

This last pilgrimage also represented a milestone of sorts in his career as a public servant.  By the first quarter of 1968, King had begun to transcend his position as the civil rights movement’s most visible advocate, and was reaching out to the disenfranchised outside his race.  This was a logical projection of his personal philosophy, which encompassed doctrine and theory outside his southern Baptist roots.

This concern for the plight of others outside his traditional constituency manifested itself that March when King hosted a summit in Atlanta, (between hops to Memphis), attended by emissaries from the United Farm Workers (founder Cesar Chavez), Native American representatives from the east, northwest, and Midwest including Dennis Banks, later of Wounded Knee fame.  Also present were a collective including Chicanos and Puerto Ricans (broadening the Hispanic representation), and a contingent of migrant workers including poor whites, all combining to implement a “Poor People’s Campaign (PPC),” and to inaugurate a new march on Washington, D.C.  The PPC was an exercise in “multi-cultural” cooperation years before the term became popular. It can also be seen as a precursor to Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition of the 1980s.

Enemies in High Places

Complicating his endeavors was his old nemesis, F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover, who had variously referred to the minister as the “most notorious liar” and “one of the lowest characters in the country.”  The fact that he was attempting to bring a half million people to the capital in protest, and had come out against the Vietnam War (at a time when General William Westmoreland was asking for an additional 200,000 troops).  Despite overtures by King staffers to meet with the F.B.I. leadership, Hoover and his subordinates continued to dog his every step, using any opportunity to discredit his public image.

The increasing polarization between the black and white populations back in Memphis made for an especially volatile atmosphere, reaching a breaking point during a March 28 protest rally when participants allegedly began throwing objects, breaking windows, and looting.  King was actually whisked away by his supporters for his own safety, before flying out of the city to satisfy other appointments, with reservations to return to Memphis on April 3.


The question of security was regularly balanced by the need to appear as one with the people.  Coupled to this was the King entourage’s often tenuous relationship with the city government and its police department.  To accommodate the minister on his frequent commutes into Memphis, a cadre of black detectives had been formed to protect the visiting dignitary.  Curiously, upon his April 3 arrival this arrangement was terminated.

The following is an excerpt from retired Memphis Police Captain Willie B. Richmond, from the MLK wrongful death trial transcripts, VOLUME VIII, November 29, 1999.

Q. Now, when Dr. King arrived in the city for that last visit (April 3, 1968), were you at the airport?

A. I was.

Q. Did you have a conversation with anyone connected with either his group or with the local clergy having to do with security or protection for him on that last visit?

A. I didn’t, but my partner (Mr. Edward Redditt) did.

Q. Your partner did. Were you present when that conversation was taking place?

A. I was there.

Q. And with whom was the conversation?

A. I believe he spoke with Reverend Kyles.

Q. Reverend Samuel Kyles?

A. Right.

Q. And what was the gist of the conversation with respect to security protection for Dr. King?

A. At that time we was told that

Dr. King hadn’t wanted any police protection.

Q. …And this was told to you in this conversation by Reverend Kyles?

A. I think it was Reverend Kyles. I’m not sure, but I believe it was Reverend Kyles. He was the one that said it I believe.

On April 4, 1968 Dr. King held several meetings in his room at the Lorraine Motel, after stirring up supporters with his now famous “mountaintop” speech the day before.  This afforded him a chance to go over logistical details and relax from his rigorous schedule.

On previous trips to Memphis, King alternately stayed at the Lorraine, or at the Holiday Inn in the white section of town.  Hoover and the F.B.I. took pot shots at their quarry by spreading insinuations about King’s alleged preference for a Caucasian run establishment over one patronized by those he professed to lead.  One accommodation the Holiday Inn did not have, however, was a balcony allowing an open view to the surrounding landscape.

Testifying in the above wrongful death trial, private investigator Leon Cohen related a conversation he had had on April 5, in which Lorraine Motel proprietor Walter Bailey said that he had received a telephone call from the Atlanta SCLC office on April 2 (prior to King’s arrival in Memphis), specifically directing that King be moved from a room in the interior area of the Lorraine to one on the balcony overlooking the courtyard and pool area.

Also present were colleagues who stood at his side throughout the years including activisits and clergy members, Reverends Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, Hosea Williams, and Andrew Young.  These staff members had been brought in to plan a “recommitment” to non-violence to ensure a peaceful march in the days ahead.  Their numbers were augmented by a dozen or so youthful members of the Invaders, a local militant group that later transitioned into the Memphis chapter of the Black Panther Party.  The Invaders are interesting in their own right because they had been accused of instigating much of the previous violence, and possessed firearms.  That day they were told that the SCLC, which had put them up in rooms at the Lorraine and provided meals, would no longer be footing their bill, in essence evicting them.

At about 4 p.m., King’s colleagues were joined by a local Memphian, the Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, to whose home they had been invited for dinner that evening, and King engaged in light, friendly banter before getting dressed to go out to dinner.

Stepping out into the balcony, the good natured ribbing continued as a Volkswagen pulled up in the courtyard below.  In the vehicle were young preachers James Bevel and James Orange, and perhaps the most intriguing personality in the whole saga, Marrell McCullough.  McCullough was an admitted undercover policeman/agent provocateur sent to infiltrate the Invaders who left the building at 5:50 p.m.

Bevel and Orange fed into the mood with light hearted horse play, joined by Young.  Jackson, who had been rehearsing a choir on the ground floor, stepped out into the courtyard as well, exchanging pleasantries with his mentor in the above balcony before the shot was fired.

“Why America May Go to Hell.”

-proposed topic for a sermon King was to have preached on the Sunday following his death.

His entourage immediately encircled their fallen leader as South African journalist Joseph Louw stepped out of his second floor room to snap the iconic photo forever associated with the assassination, showing McCullough performing first aide on the stricken preacher.  Perhaps the most significant consequence of the King assassination was its immediate aftermath.  Memphis was on fire within an hour as the news spread.  Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and dozens of other cities with significant black enclaves also went up in smoke.

In short order the primary subject was identified as escaped convict James Earl Ray.  He was a high school drop out who had enjoyed only marginal success as a petty criminal after a dishonorable discharge from the Army.  Nonetheless, after King’s murder, Ray evaded a nationwide manhunt before his eventual apprehension in London, England on June 8.  His delayed capture has fueled speculation about a conspiracy from that time into the present.

One of the more pervasive arguments comes from William Pepper, confidant of Martin Luther King, who played various seemingly opposing roles in this saga.  He was attorney for James Earl Ray, author of several books on the subject, and representative for the King family in the above mentioned (and successful) wrongful death suit that netted them $100. – The acceptance of this small amount is reflected in light of a statement made by Coretta Scott King during the trial, “It’s not about money, we are concerned about the truth.”  However regarding the conspiracy, Pepper offers the premise that the killing was subcontracted out by way of the (Carlos) Marcello organized crime family of New Orleans, who in turn had ties to the American intelligence community as a conduit for gun smuggling and the support of anti-Castro Cuban expatriate groups in the U.S.

This ruse included the placement of military assets in the vicinity of the motel as back up provided the (civilian) subcontractor failed to complete the mission.  Dr. Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University confirmed to Our Weekly that at least one military group (a unit, similar in size to a brigade or regiment, consisting of a few hundred to 5,000 soldiers) was in place in Memphis on the day of the shooting.  This was the 111th Military Intelligence (M.I.) Group out of Fort McPherson in Atlanta (confirmed by reports declassified in 1997), although reports circulate that the 902nd M. I. Group was in the area along with a detachment of Green Berets.

Post Script

As befits a modern political tragedy, the King assassination is both a pivotal event in itself, and a harbinger of tidings to come.  In the years since the assassination, the crime has attracted the interest of a plethora of notables including the late novelist and celebrity gadfly Truman Capote (“In Cold Blood”) who argued on NBC’s Tonight Show that Ray, whose past history of crooked ineptitude ensured him a place among the bottom feeders of criminality, might have been a brainwashed triggerman (along with his counter parts Oswald and Sirhan), in the same vein of  Richard Condon’s 1959 conspiracy thriller “The Manchurian Candidate.”

Allegations have been made that since the metropolitan area had been cordoned off in the wake of the assassination, Ray would have needed help to get out of the city.  However, as Dr. Carson points out, there would have been ample time for him to get away before the necessary road blocks were in place.  The elements that make up this decades old intrigue have resurfaced over the years, as active ingredients to change or influence the political process throughout the world or in outright coups d’état.  These include crucial security lapses as seen in the assassination of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat in 1980, up to the recent killing of Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto, which mirrors the King slaying in that questions were raised about the precautions taken before the rally where she appeared (enabling her assailant to come within almost point-blank range of his target), and allegations that the crime scene was cleared before any forensic examination could be completed.

In a world full of uncertainty and nebulous truths, it is safe to say that no one person has completely filled the void left by King’s passing.  Possibly, because of the absence of the visionary who conceived it and the refusal of remaining activists to stick to attainable goals, the original Poor People’s Campaign never succeeded.  Spring rains eroded “Resurrection City,” the shanty town erected to dramatize their cause, before bulldozers razed it in July of ’68.  Nevertheless, on April 4, 2007, the Los Angeles branch of SCLC reignited the Poor People’s Campaign locally.

On a positive note, the Memphis Sanitation Strike resulted in a merging of elements of the civil rights, labor, and city government.  Within two weeks of King’s death on April 16, the strike was ended when the workers received a 10 percent an hour wage increase, but the gains made there may always be over shadowed by the assassination.   King’s commitment to the tenets of nonviolence or passive resistance has taken root and been used as a tool for various interest groups over the years including Greenpeace supporters, proponents on either side of the legalized abortion issue, opponents of the Iraq war, and finally in 2007, the thousands of protesters rallying in Louisiana without incident in support of the Jena 6, despite threats and harassment by white supremacist groups.

Further evidence of the resilience of the King legacy is exhibited in the current presidential election, in which both an African American male and a Caucasian women are vying for the leadership of the most powerful nation on earth.

Over the past few decades a significant number of women have enjoyed success in politics, such as local elected officials Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, and Congresswoman Diane Watson. Black men have risen to head huge corporations  such as Stanley O’Neal, Ronald A. Williams, and Richard D. Parsons as CEOs of Merrill Lynch, Aetna, and Time Warner, respectively.  While this in no way implies a leveled playing field, and as critics scrutinize the merits of having a chief executive who is not a white man, it speaks volumes for the progress America has made in the last 40 years, simply for the fact that Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton can be praised or condemned solely on their track record or beliefs, and not for the single notion that the country will go down the tubes because a black or a woman is in charge.