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Rev. Jesse Jackson on Witnessing the Assassination of Dr. King

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As a young aide, the Reverend Jesse Jackson was with Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. We speak to Rev. Jackson about the killing he witnessed before his eyes. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Jesse Jackson. Charles Cabbage was driving away from the hotel. Reverend Jesse Jackson was one of Dr. King’s aides. He was at the Lorraine Motel. He came to Memphis this weekend, and I asked him about April 4, 1968.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: The week before, when he had marched, the FBI had put in some instigators, as it were, to disrupt the march to prove he no longer had leadership, he couldn’t control his demonstration. That was a setup. We finally knew that those guys were setups to disrupt the march.

We were talking about how to keep marching, because we were on our way to Washington to maybe engage in civil disobedience, demanding a job, an income, for every American. He had pulled together blacks and Appalachian whites and Jews and Native Americans and Latinos on the idea that there should be a floor beneath which no American would fall. We were on our way to Washington.

And that day, I spent much of the day, in addition to being with him, over in a little carousel restaurant, singing, because our group was going to perform that night, a band we brought from Chicago. I was like singing-not-singing, not like singing-singing. And so, coming across the courtyard, Reverend Kyles had just left the room, and Dr. King said, “Jesse, we’re going to dinner. You don’t have a shirt and tie.” I said, “Doc, you don’t need a tie. A prerequisite to eating is to have an appetite, not a tie.” He said, “Boy, you’re crazy.”

About that time, Ben Branch, who I brought with me from Chicago, was a saxophonist who had played for Dr. King the week before when Dr. King was in Chicago. He said, “Be sure to play for me my favorite song tonight, 'Precious Lord,'” because he had played it for him two weeks before. Ben said, “I will.”

About that time, he raised up. I said, “Doc.” He said, “Doc.” Bullet hit him, and then he was killed on impact, I’m sure. And I heard someone saying, “Get low, get low,” because whoever was shooting could have scattered — there were a number of us. Andy Young was in the courtyard. Bernard Lee and Rev. Abernathy were not. They were in the room downstairs. But it was full of people on their way to dinner. And I remember hitting the steps, and he had been hit against the wall and knocked down. And I heard Abernathy saying, “Get back. My friend has been shot. Let me talk to him.” He tried to talk to him, but he was dead.

So I got up and called Mrs. King and said, “Dr. King has been shot, I think in the shoulder.” I couldn’t say what I saw. It was a long 89 steps to that telephone. And I said, “But you should get here quickly.” I guess within five minutes, she had found out through the media that he had really been shot and killed. It was a very traumatic moment.

And I play the moment back in my head quite often. I try to live above it. I use it as a source of stimulation. I remember Andy Young and them were crying at the memorial about a month ago. It’s because when last I met him, when he had gone through his period of despair trying to figure out what the next stages were, and he had said, “We’re going to go onto Memphis anyhow.”

And he had described how he was going through a kind of depression and thought about turning back, but he couldn’t go back. He said, “I’ll fast until the point of death to gather the coalition again.” Then he said, “We’ve got to go on.” It reminded me so much of the three steps of Jesus, from “Let the cup pass from me,” to a fast and praying, to “not my will, but thine be done.” And I thought about that, and then he also said, “I’m out here by myself. Don’t let me die.” That’s what Andy recalls. And we began to cry, because we tried not to let him down. We tried to keep the struggle alive.

AMY GOODMAN: And even at that moment, you went back to him laying there?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Yes, because he was lying on the floor on the balcony. I was on the ground level. He was lying there on the balcony, and I remember a Mr. Withers, a photographer, who’s still alive, scooped up a jar of blood, said, “Take this. This is precious.” I said, “I can’t touch it. It’s too morbid.” Blood was everywhere at that time.

Reverend Kyles, who was there, he saw the whole thing. We were on our way to his home for dinner. There’s a scene of Andy Young and some of us pointing that way. And that picture is — as we were pointing to him lying there, police were coming toward us with drawn guns. We were saying, “The bullet didn’t come from here; the bullet came from there. Go that way. Go that way.” And, of course, the word got out. Then, Memphis was on fire in 30 minutes. And so was the nation.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you ever satisfied with who was put behind bars, with James Earl Ray being the killer?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Oh, no. James Earl Ray was a pawn in the bigger game. He perhaps pulled the trigger, but he didn’t have the money, the motivation nor the transportation to get from here to London on the way to Rhodesia at that time. He had great assistance. To get from downtown Memphis, an alias, out of the city, out of the country, he had lots of support. Our government had been convinced Dr. King was the enemy of the state. Edgar Hoover, the FBI, had said as much, that Dr. King, if you’re going to arrest a hundred men in emergency, that he would be one of them. He called Dr. King a damn liar, when he said that Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, the two Jews and black who were killed, that the FBI was not working hard to find the killers. Hoover said he was a damn liar. He saw Dr. King as an enemy. He was a fierce right-winger. He tried to embarrass him. He tried to hurt him. The Johnson forces, who were all with him — it’s a march for public accommodations — they felt defense about him being against the war. So he had enemies in high places. And yet, somehow it was painful for him, but he would not retreat.

AMY GOODMAN: The Reverend Jesse Jackson, speaking this weekend in Memphis.

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