After speaking to a rapt crowd on March 18, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. returned to Memphis, Tenn., as promised, to march in solidarity with Memphis sanitation strikers.
The date was March 28, 1968—50 years ago today—King’s first and only march in Memphis and the last march of his all-too-brief life.
He would return to a city on fire for change.
“I felt if we could get Dr. King,” said Memphis sanitation striker Alvin Turner, “we might stand a chance for a win in this strike.”
It all seems so ominous now. If one listens closely enough, one can hear the sound of a clock ticking, sand slipping through an hourglass. The firm footsteps of a giant as he marches into a deadly storm.
Every moment leading to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel now feels heavy with sorrow and foreboding. No one knew then that, within days, he would be stolen from us.
During March 1968, sanitation strikers marched daily from Clayborn Temple to City Hall—demanding livable wages, safe working conditions and recognition of their union, Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb and the City Council refused to accept their demands. The men were expected to go back to work, or else.
But it was revolution time.
Instead of submitting to the corrupt powers-that-be, strikers and their supporters escalated their efforts by boycotting local businesses, which increased tension in the city. National leaders—including King comrade and civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin and Roy Wilkins, then the executive director of the NAACP—began paying attention.
King, understanding the influence he wielded, was ready to roll up his sleeves and enter the fray. Planning for the Poor People’s Campaign was already in motion, and Memphis was at the volatile intersection of poverty and racism. What more strategic place to go for a man becoming more and more committed to dismantling not only white supremacy but also the economic exploitation of black people that sustains it?
Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned.
During the march, some of the protesters began to break windows, throw objects and loot small businesses. The Rev. James Lawson noticed police in riot gear in the distance as they rounded Main Street from Beale Street, and insisted that they turn the march around and head back to Clayborn Temple, where organizers were headquartered. Lawson knew that the police would target King if they could just get close enough to him, and he wasn’t having that on his watch.
Still, the Memphis Police Department was a pack of violent dogs unleashed. With Mayor Loeb’s blessing, they terrorized sanitation strikers and community supporters with tear gas and billy clubs, then they began arresting anyone they could get their hands on. They followed the marchers back to Clayborn Temple, stormed the sanctuary and released tear gas into the sacred place like the devils they were.
In the midst of the state violence raining down on black Memphis, a police officer stuck a rifle in the stomach of 16-year-old Larry Payne, a teenager participating in the uprising, and executed him with one shot. We delve into Payne’s death in the next episode of our video series.
The splintering within the civil rights movement, between younger activists and established leadership, came to a head during this march, and the fallout deeply depressed King. He understood that this new generation was fed up with old tactics. He also knew that instigators and naysayers would use the violence in Memphis as justification to halt the Poor People’s Campaign.
King was forced to face a gnawing fear growing within the movement’s ranks and within himself: If he couldn’t lead a peaceful march in Memphis in 1968, how could he lead a peaceful march in Washington, D.C.?
He struggled to discern what his next steps should be before ultimately deciding—against advice from his comrades—to return to Memphis one more time to get it right. He had committed himself to the sanitation strikers; their battle was his battle, and it was not yet won. He had also made plans to visit Larry Payne’s mother—a visit that would never come.
In 1,300 Men: Memphis Strike ’68, episode 6: “MLK’s Final March,” you will see how black men, their wives and their children refused to be silenced, despite the oppressive tactics of the state.
You will be reminded that the police brutality of today is not a new phenomenon, but a continuation of the violence and dehumanization that black people in this country have faced time and time again, simply for trying to be free.
You will see that what happened in the streets of Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore and Baton Rouge, La., and New York City also happened in the streets of Memphis in 1968: police officers, drunk on power, declaring with their weapons that black lives do not matter.
You will see a preacher from Atlanta, exhausted and determined, fighting for his people—fighting so that the world would understand that “it is a crime to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”
You will see our Dr. King—a man labeled by the FBI as “the most dangerous Negro” in America—filled with the urgency of now, knowing deep down in his soul that he didn’t have many tomorrows left.