The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. returned to Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968, one day after the funeral of Larry Payne—the 16-year-old boy killed by Memphis Police Officer Leslie Dean Jones.
King was exhausted and battling deep depression, the kind that makes it difficult to get out of bed. He was tired of the hate, tired of the state-sanctioned killings, tired of struggling to save the “burning house” he had worked so hard to integrate his people into. He had started questioning himself, the tactics of the civil rights movement and, indeed, this nation’s capacity to be true to what it said on paper—that all people had a right to be free.
But he still came back to Memphis. Despite the fact that his plane, Eastern Airline Flight 381 from Atlanta, was over an hour late departing because of a bomb threat, he didn’t let that turn him around.
Despite a local newspaper headline that read, “Chicken a la King,” because the March 28 march was abruptly halted, he came back. Despite the relentless antagonism and mockery he faced, he came back to Memphis because he had made a promise to the sanitation strikers.
King had committed himself to their struggle, because within it, he saw the struggle of every black person in this nation: the dehumanizing, backbreaking, soul-destroying realization that white supremacy demanded that they remain in poverty, in servitude, and, if all else failed, dead and buried.
So despite his bone-deep weariness, he spoke before a crowd of thousands on the night before the day he would be assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, getting them ready for the next march in solidarity with the sanitation strikers, scheduled to take place on April 8, 1968.
In the now iconic “Mountaintop” speech, given at Mason Temple during a heavy thunderstorm, one can hear that he knew his tomorrows would never come. He spoke about being stabbed in the chest in Harlem, and that he would have died if he had sneezed. He spoke about the threats on his life. He made it plain that he might not be alive to see it, but victory would be the outcome in Memphis.
The “Mountaintop” Speech: April 3, 1968
“It really doesn’t matter now ... I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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 He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.
Though King prophesied his death that night, he did more than that—he passed the baton. He told the crowd that it was time to “redistribute the pain” to brands like Coca-Cola and Wonder Bread, which were not in the business of fairness and equality to the patrons they served. He reminded the crowd that black people in the United States had immense economic power and needed to harness it instead of giving it away for free.
Later that evening, he returned to Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, which he shared with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. He awoke on April 4, 1968, to continue the fight. Mayor Henry Loeb and Memphis city attorneys had issued an injunction to prevent him from leading another march. King and his lawyers were battling it that day in federal court.
At 5:55 p.m., he stepped out onto the balcony.
At 6 p.m., the Commercial Appeal reported, King called down to jazz saxophonist Ben Branch, who was in the courtyard, and requested that his favorite song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” be played at a meeting scheduled for later that night.
“Play it real pretty,” King told Branch.
Those would be his last words.
At 6:01 p.m., a sniper shot King in the face with a rifle. He was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
In 1999, a Memphis jury found the United States government guilty of conspiracy in King’s assassination—but that would be later.
That night, April 4, 1968, according to sanitation strikers, the sky went black. The world went black. The news of King’s assassination spread like wildfire, and black Memphis was drowning in intense grief. Children of the strike remember that the man their parents told them was coming to help had been killed. They worried that there would be no more help.
But the sanitation strikers remembered King’s words. He had seen the mountaintop. He had seen the Promised Land; they just needed to keep climbing to get to the other side—with or without him.
As the American Airlines plane bearing King’s body left Memphis, a Black Power fist raised defiantly into the blue sky.
It was both salute and promise.
The strike would continue, just as King would have wanted.