That Day in Memphis

Gregg Reese | 1/9/2009, 5 p.m.

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.