Witnesses forever changed by King's final days - InfoNews

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Witnesses forever changed by King's final days

April 02, 2018 - 5:31 AM

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had won victories on desegregation and voting rights and had been planning his Poor People's Campaign when he turned his attention to Memphis, the gritty city by the Mississippi River. That decision set in motion events that had a profound impact on his country, and on those who directly witnessed the subsequent tragedy.

It began Feb. 1, 1968, when two sanitation workers were crushed when a garbage truck compactor malfunctioned, sparking a strike by about 1,300 black sanitation workers weary of working conditions and racist treatment in the dirtiest of municipal jobs.

"We didn't have a place to shower, wash our hands, nothing," said Elmore Nickleberry, who at 86 still drives a truck for the department.

King tried to lead a march on March 28 that turned violent — storefront windows were smashed and police wielded clubs and tear gas.

King went back to Atlanta disheartened, but returned April 3, determined to show that nonviolent protest still worked.

Lawyer Mike Cody was among those working to persuade a judge to lift a ban against a new march. He met with King in his motel room.

"King felt strongly that unless he could get a success here in Memphis, with these workers using nonviolent, civil disobedience, then he would never get the Poor People's March in Washington that summer," said Cody, 82.

Cody was in the crowd later that evening at the Mason Temple. Though King was ill, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy asked him to address the thousands who turned out despite a thunderstorm.

"It's a tin roof, so that's banging. There's rafters up there above us, and the rafters are blowing with the wind and hitting each other and hitting the walls from the fierceness of the wind and the rain," said the Rev. James Lawson, a prominent civil rights activist.

With little preparation, King delivered a speech that, in retrospect, seemed to foretell his death: "Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter to me now, because I've been to the mountaintop."

When he finished, King slumped into a chair. He looked to Cody like a "toy that had the air taken out of it."

"Ministers, men were crying," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said.

Cody went to court the next day with King aide Andrew Young, then dropped Young back at the Lorraine Motel in the late afternoon.

King had spent most of the day in meetings. He asked Young where he'd been and then threw a pillow at him. "Then everybody picked up pillows and beat me up," Young said. "All of us were in our 30s, and we were acting like 10, 12-year-olds. But it was the happiest I had seen him in a long time."

As dinner approached, King and his friends moved to the motel balcony. King turned to a bandleader who was standing nearby and made a request: Later, could he play his favourite song, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord"?

Then: "Pow! A bullet," recalled Jackson, pointing to the right side of his own face.

It was 6:01 p.m. April 4, 1968.

"At first I thought it was a firecracker or car backfiring," Young said.

Jackson ran toward the balcony steps.

"Someone said, 'Doc has been shot,' and 'Get low,'" Jackson said.

Earl Caldwell, a New York Times reporter who'd interviewed King on the balcony the previous day, ran out of his room in his boxer shorts. "I was thinking, 'It was a bomb. It was a bomb.' Because the noise was greater than a gun."

Clara Ester, a college student who marched alongside the sanitation workers, had gone to the motel for dinner when she saw King chatting on the balcony and then heard the shot.

"He looked like he was lifted up and thrown back on the pavement. Next thing I remember, I was stepping over his body, and I'm noticing that he's struggling for air," she said.

Ester said she noticed King's tie had blown off. His eyes were open, "almost a pleasant expression on his face," she said.

King was rushed to St. Joseph's Hospital, where college student John Billings worked as a surgical assistant.

"Three doctors came over and walked to where I was standing. They said, 'OK Billings, go find somebody in charge and tell them that Dr. King has expired,'" he said.

Billings was ordered to stay with King's body until someone could come get him.

"I walked over, pulled the sheet back, and there he was," Billings said. "His eyes were closed. I thought, 'How strange this is.'"

Security was heavy when medical examiner Dr. Jerry Francisco arrived. Men holding shotguns stood inside and outside the room. After the 1 1/2-hour autopsy, Francisco drove home with Memphis under curfew, for fear of rioting.

"The streets were just virtually empty. I was the only car moving," he said.

Fifty years after King's assassination, Ester has trouble talking about the months that followed. Haunted by memories, she left her hometown.

Billings became a private investigator; met James Earl Ray, who pleaded guilty to killing King; and explored the notion someone else had been involved.

Young became a congressman, ambassador to the United Nations and Atlanta's mayor.

Jackson ran for president, then stood in Chicago's Grant Park with tears streaming down his face after a black man was elected president in 2008.

Cody continued working in civil-rights law in Memphis, eventually serving as a U.S. attorney and Tennessee attorney general.

If King were alive today, "he'd be in people's face" about race, poverty and inequality, Cody says.

"We're not past all of that history."


Associated Press staffers Rhonda Shafner in New York, Robert Ray in Atlanta, and Krysta Fauria in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

News from © The Associated Press, 2018
The Associated Press

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