- Harry Belafontelegendary musician, actor and humanitarian. He was with Coretta Scott King at the King home in Atlanta on April 4, 1968.
- Dr. Vincent Hardinghe wrote Dr. King’s major antiwar speech “Beyond Vietnam.” He is Professor Emeritus of Religion and Social Transformation at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, and author of many books, including Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero.
- Taylor Rogersformer sanitation worker in Memphis. He and 1,300 of his fellow workers went on strike in 1968. He later served as president of the local Memphis branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees or AFSCME union for twenty years.
- Jesse Jacksonhe was with King at the Lorraine Motel. At the time, Jackson was a top aide to Dr. King.
- Charles Cabbagelongtime activist and community organizer in Memphis. He helped lead the Invaders, a black power group active at the time of Dr. King’s assassination. He met with King hours before he died.
- Jerry Williamsretired Memphis police detective. At the time of King’s death Williams was one of the only African American detectives in the Memphis Police Department.
- D’Army Baileycircuit court judge in Memphis and co-founder of the National Civil Rights Museum.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated forty years ago today. He was in Memphis, Tennessee to march with sanitation workers demanding a better wage. We spend the hour on his life and legacy. We hear from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was with King at the Lorraine Motel, where he was killed; Harry Belafonte, who was with Coretta Scott King at the King home in Atlanta on April 4, 1968; Dr. Vincent Harding, a close friend and colleague of King’s who wrote King’s major antiwar speech, “Beyond Vietnam;” Taylor Rogers, a former sanitation worker in Memphis; Charles Cabbage, a longtime activist and community organizer in Memphis who met with King hours before he died; Jerry Williams, one of the only African American detectives in the Memphis Police Department in 1968; Judge D’Army Bailey, a circuit court judge in Memphis and co-founder of the National Civil Rights Museum; and we hear King in his own words, giving his major speech against the war in Vietnam and his last public address given the night before his death in Memphis, Tennessee. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Commemorations are being held across the country today to mark the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The civil rights leader and peace activist was gunned down April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was just thirty-nine years old.
Today, we spend the hour looking at King’s death and broadcasting interviews with Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Dr. Vincent Harding and the sanitation workers. We begin with Taylor Rogers, a former sanitation worker in Memphis, describing why King was there.
TAYLOR ROGERS: Back in 1968, 1,300 sanitation workers, led by T.O. Jones, the late T.O. Jones—we decided that we were tired going, we weren’t going to take no more. We were tired of being mistreated, overworked and underpaid. We decided that we were just going to stand up and be men and do something about our condition. And that’s what we did. We stood up, and we told Henry Loeb in the city of Memphis that “I am a man.”
AMY GOODMAN: Henry Loeb was the mayor at the time.
TAYLOR ROGERS: Henry Loeb was the mayor.
AMY GOODMAN: “I am a man.”
TAYLOR ROGERS: “I am a man.”
AMY GOODMAN: That is the poster that has become so famous all over the world. You all carried this poster?
TAYLOR ROGERS: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: How did Dr. King end up joining you in this struggle to ratify your union contract?
TAYLOR ROGERS: Through the ministers. I think Reverend Lawson got in contact with Dr. King and asked him come to Memphis. And I think everybody was against him—his staff and everybody was against him coming to Memphis, but he decided that poor people in Memphis—the garbage men, the people on the bottom of the ladder—needed his support, and he stopped everything to come to Memphis to see about us. And I think that makes him one of the greatest leaders we’ve ever had.
AMY GOODMAN: On the night before he was assassinated, Dr. King spoke at the Mason Temple in Memphis. Taylor Rogers remembers the scene inside the church.
TAYLOR ROGERS: The place was full, wall-to-wall with people, storming and raining outside. You could tell by the sound of his voice and the way that he was speaking and the look on his—the expression on his face, that he knew something was going to happen. He didn’t know when or where. He didn’t know whether it was going to be in Memphis or on the way to Washington. But I could feel that, from the way he talked, he felt like something was going to happen, because he said, you know, “I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” You know, and he went on, and people was crying and everything, and that was, you know, just a great speech. And so, that’s why I feel that he was one of the greatest leaders we’ll ever have.
REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: 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. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
AMY GOODMAN: Less than twenty-four hours after Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at the Mason Temple, a sniper shot him while he was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. News spread around the world of King’s shooting. During a campaign stop in Indianapolis, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy broke the news to a crowd of supporters.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY: Ladies and gentlemen, I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens and people who love peace all over the world. And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert F. Kennedy, speaking on that night of April 4, 1968. Kennedy would be assassinated himself just two months later.
Last year, I was in Memphis on the holiday of Martin Luther King’s birthday and interviewed Reverend Jesse Jackson. He was with King at the Lorraine Motel when he was killed. At the time, Reverend Jackson was a top aide to Dr. King. I asked Jesse Jackson about that day, 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 eighty-nine 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 thirty 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, he was with Dr. King at the Lorraine Motel — Dr. King gunned down April 4, 1968. After he was killed, Jesse Jackson kneeled by his body. This is Democracy Now!
, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Mahalia Jackson, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” Dr. King’s favorite song. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to another person who was near the scene of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis at the time of the assassination of Dr. King. He was Charles Cabbage, a leader of a local black power group called the Invaders. He had been negotiating with Dr. King just hours before he was killed, He worked with King to organize the march in support of the sanitation workers.
I spoke with Charles Cabbage on Martin Luther King’s birthday last year in Memphis.
AMY GOODMAN: Charles Cabbage, you were driving away from the Lorraine Motel when Dr. King was killed.
CHARLES CABBAGE: Yes. That’s the understanding that I have of it. But, you know, like, nobody really thought that they would assassinate Dr. King, a man that stood for nonviolence. The man was a minister. You understand, his whole being was one of peace and harmony. So when the shot broke out, we were loading up our car. And there’s another long story that goes with that, but I am going to try to skip to the part that you probably want to deal with. And you know, when we were getting ready to pull off, I heard the shot. Well, we all, you know, like, hit the floor for cover. No other shots came. So I just jumped up and raised up and looked around, then pulled off.
By the time I left from the hotel and got to my home, you know, my mother come running out of the house, you know, I mean, crying and everything. And she said, “Dr. King got shot.” Well, see, her reaction was one of tears and sadness and sorrow. Mine was, how long is it going to get them to get here, because, you know, the way that I could see that COINTELPRO was operating here inside of Memphis itself, now that I have done a little research and looked back, was that they wanted to create as much disruption as they could. And they did a pretty good job of it.
AMY GOODMAN: Many questions still remain over who was behind Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. In 1969, James Earl Ray pleaded guilty but soon recanted and claimed he was innocent. Many of King’s relatives and closest friends suspect government involvement.
Last year, I spoke to Jerry Williams, a retired Memphis police detective. At the time of King’s death, Williams was one of the only African American detectives in the Memphis Police Department. I interviewed Jerry Williams outside the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Memphis.
JERRY WILLIAMS: My name is Jerry Williams. I’m a retired Memphis policeman. During the time of Dr. King’s assassination, I was working the homicide bureau in the Memphis Police Department. And on two previous occasions when Dr. King would come to Memphis, I was assigned to head his security team. But the last time he came, there were no black officers assigned for that security.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
JERRY WILLIAMS: Well, I really don’t know. I just know that I reported to work on the morning of Dr. King’s assassination, and I was told by my inspector that we would not be on the assignment. So I commenced to do my regular duties as a homicide officer in the office, and later on, around 5:00 in the afternoon, we heard that Dr. King was assassinated. When we got the information in the office, Inspector Zachary said that we have to get down to the Lorraine Motel, that Dr. King had been assassinated. And I remember getting my hat and coat, and when I got to the door, the inspector said, “No, I’m going to have to have at least two officers to stay in the office, because we’re going to be getting calls from all over the country,” which we did. Within five minutes, we were getting calls from San Francisco, New York, Hawaii, and London, England, all wanting the confirmation of Dr. King’s assassination.
Shortly after that, I was called to the scene, where Dr. King was assassinated, to bring the camera. The police camera had broken, and, of course, we have cameras in our office in Homicide, so I was told to bring a camera down there. So I carried the camera down there, and they proceeded to do the pictures at the scene. My partner and I left and went to the St. Joseph Hospital on North 2nd Street to view Dr. King’s body. And from that time on, we were assigned to work the homicide.
The lonely sanitation people who Dr. King gave his life for, they were the ones who stuck with him. They were the ones who marched and picketed City Hall, had the sign on, “I am a man.” They are the ones that had a tremendous effect on the change that took place here in Memphis, not these so-called professional people. It was the little person, the ones who worked on the sanitation trucks, who hauled the garbage in tubs on their shoulders. They were the ones that stuck with Dr. King. And these others—as I said earlier, these other people who came after his death, they was not there marching with him, as a whole. After his death, everybody came out the woodworks.
AMY GOODMAN: Did your view change of him?
JERRY WILLIAMS: Yes. My view—when I realized my office was across the street from City Hall, the homicide office in Memphis Police Department, on that January afternoon or morning, when I looked out and I saw those men, it was snowing. And they was walking in a circle, and as their backs turned to me and I saw that sign that said, “I am a man,” it had a definite effect on me, because I realized that time they was marching not only for themselves, but for me and all black people.
And I listened to some of the remarks that was made in the office. Some of my white associates, detectives, was in agreement, and there was some who was not in agreement. They said, for instance, “What do they want?” But there were some who said, “Would you want to work on a job where you are hauling garbage in a tin tub and the filth running down your shoulders on your back?” He said, “No, you wouldn’t want that,” said, “Those men are right.” So that’s just to kind of give you an idea of how the temperament was during that time.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you see Dr. King’s body at the Lorraine Motel?
JERRY WILLIAMS: Yes. I saw his body at the—as I said, we brought the camera down there. The attorney general was afraid of riding down there by himself, so he rode with me down to the scene. And then, when I left the scene, I went out to the hospital, and I saw Dr. King’s body. He had been cut from his chest all the way down to his stomach. And I asked the nurse why was that necessary. They said the doctor cut him open to try to massage his heart. And that was it. That’s about all I can remember. That’s been a long time, say, some thirty years ago, but I do remember that much of it. And I do know that had it not been for Dr. King giving his life here in Memphis, things would have been a lot different. Things did not begin to open up until after he came and made that terrific sacrifice.
AMY GOODMAN: Jerry Williams, retired Memphis police detective. When we went to Memphis on Dr. King’s birthday last year, we went to the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in front of Room 306, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated the evening of April 4, 1968. I’m standing with Judge D’Army Bailey, who is the founder of the National Civil Rights Museum, which is what the Lorraine Motel has been incorporated into today.
Judge Bailey, where were you when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated here on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel?
JUDGE D’ARMY BAILEY: I was working in New York in the national headquarters of the American Civil Liberties Union, and I ran an organization that had the responsibility of recruiting law students and sending them to the South to help on civil rights work. So I had ten law students that were in Memphis working with the sanitation strike and with the lawyers here. And I was in my office in Manhattan packing my briefcase to take a plane the next morning to Memphis, because they had that march coming up within two or three days. And so, I was there in my office, and my secretary came in, and she said—she had the radio on—she said that she had just her that Dr. King had been shot in Memphis, and I sat at my desk, stunned. And within about ten minutes, she came back out crying and said that he had died.
And I finished packing very quickly and walked downstairs with her and put her in a taxi, and then I went over and took the Lexington uptown to Grand Central Station, and when I got off the train in Grand Central Station, no one was speaking to anybody. It was just tense and quiet. And you could cut the tension with a knife there. And I went on uptown to—and shortly later that night, the rioting started in Harlem and in other parts of the country.
And I did come on to Memphis the next day. And when I got here, the city was under martial law, and National Guard troops were throughout the city. And, of course, the march did occur, that Dr. King was to lead, two days later, I think, on the 8th of April. And thousands of people were here. Mrs. King came with her children. I talked with Mrs. King when we brought her here for the dedication of the museum, and she told me the story that she was—that some of her family members had urged her not to come to that march—they were fearful in the wake of the assassination—and that Harry Belafonte had called her and said, “Mrs. King, you’ve got to go,” and that that was what tipped the scales, had caused her to come to Memphis and be in that march.
AMY GOODMAN: Judge D’Army Bailey, standing in front of the room where Dr. King was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Harry Belafonte takes the story from there. He was with Coretta Scott King at the King home in Atlanta on April 4, 1968.
HARRY BELAFONTE: When Dr. King was murdered, I was in Atlanta in their home, and we separated ourselves from others who were there in the living room, and she said, “Would you come with me?” We went into the bedroom, and she said, “Help me select the clothes that I must—we must dress him in.” And it was a very private and a very remarkable thing to—the intimacy of it with her. And as we were selecting the suits and the shirt and the tie and laying it out, she sat on the bed, and she kind of—a place where she had slept so often with her husband, and all those memories. And I said, “What is it?” She says, “You know, I’m worried about where this is all going. I’m worried about the nation, the rage, the anger, and I need to know what to do.” And we talked for a second. Then I said to her, “You know, at this very moment in Memphis, thousands of sanitation workers are on hold, because Dr. King was supposed to have been there tomorrow to lead that movement and to speak to the people, and before your husband, our leader, is put in his grave, if you have the will and the capacity to go down there tomorrow and stand up before those workers and let the world know that the movement has not been interrupted, that the process continues, and that all of us, as strong or as weak as we may be, will step into the breach and do what must be done.” And she did.
AMY GOODMAN: Harry Belafonte, remembering the days after King died. April 4 is also the anniversary of Dr. King’s major address against the war in Vietnam. It was April 4, 1967, a year to the day before King was assassinated. He gave it at Riverside Church here in New York.
REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.
Now, there is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter that struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing. The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Martin Luther King, April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church here in New York.
We now turn to Dr. Vincent Harding, the man who wrote that speech for King. He was a close friend, a neighbor, a colleague. He is now Professor Emeritus of Religion and Social Transformation at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, author of many books, including Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero. I asked Dr. Harding where he was at the time he heard about Dr. King’s shooting.
DR. VINCENT HARDING: I was sitting with my wife and a friend from New York, Wilfred Cartey, at the famous Paschal’s Motel and Restaurant in Atlanta, and the three of us were having dinner that evening. And the owner of Paschal’s came over to me, whispered in my ear the first word that had come about Martin being shot. And that’s where I was, and that’s where I will never forget being.
AMY GOODMAN: And your thoughts at that time? You didn’t even know he was dead at that point.
DR. VINCENT HARDING: No, no. But I was very worried that that is what might be taking place. And my wife and Freddy and I just began to talk about the significance of it. I don’t remember anything about what we said. I do remember the jolt that it was to me at the time, and then as the word began to go around the restaurant, it was clear that there was something passing through all of us who were in that restaurant at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: You had known Dr. King for ten years.
DR. VINCENT HARDING: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You met him in ’58?
DR. VINCENT HARDING: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you meet him?
DR. VINCENT HARDING: Oh, it’s a long, long story, Amy. But let me see if I can be unusual and say that five of us who were members of an interracial church in Chicago, on the South Side of Chicago, Woodlawn Mennonite Church, had decided that we wanted to really test out our own convictions about brotherhood, as we termed it then — three white, two black — got into an old station wagon and started out in Little Rock, Arkansas, to drive across the South to pledge to each other that we would not allow ourselves to be separated, because we believed deeply that we were brothers in some God-given way, and as we were driving, we came into Alabama, and it was clear to us that we shouldn’t be in Alabama without seeing Martin King. And so, in those days of non-cell phones, non-computers, non-anything, we simply called his house and told Coretta, who we had not met, that this crazy bunch of folks were driving through, and we wondered if we could come and see him.
AMY GOODMAN: In Montgomery.
DR. VINCENT HARDING: In Montgomery.
AMY GOODMAN: When he was head of the Dexter Avenue Church.
DR. VINCENT HARDING: And more than that, he was recuperating at that time from the wound that he had sustained here in New York City, and he was in bed. Coretta told him that these five guys were there and wanted to know if they could come and see him. And Martin, in his wonderfully gracious way, said, “Why not? Sure, come on in.” And when he heard that we were an interracial group and that we were driving through the South, he was just eager to encourage us. And so, we went in to meet him then, and he was in his pajamas in his bed, and we took about an hour or so of his time, and we had a great time.
Just as we were about to leave, he said to the other black guy and me — the other guy’s name was George Edgar Riddick, Ed Riddick — he said, “You guys especially, you know as a result of being in this peace church, you understand what we’re trying to do with nonviolence down here. You guys ought to come down here and help us,” and said that especially to Ed and myself. And I never forgot that. And three years later, my wife and I were down there in the South working in the movement and being next-door neighbors and friends with Martin and Coretta.
But I also remember, without the details, that he was joking about the fact that we were really asking for trouble driving through the South with three of the five of us like that. He had a marvelous sense of humor, always teasing people. And that was one thing that I recall. The conversation, I don’t think was full of gravitas; it was full of appreciation for each other and encouragement of each other. And as I said, his call to us, not to stay away, but to come back south.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll return to Dr. King’s friend and colleague, Dr. Vincent Harding, in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to Dr. Vincent Harding, close friend, neighbor and colleague of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. Harding has written many books, including Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Harding, can you talk about the movements that he spearheaded, was part of, was inspired by and then inspired, and how it changed, how he evolved in those ten years from ’58 to ’68?
DR. VINCENT HARDING: Amy, I am very glad that you put it that way, because that is precisely the way that I see the historical development. Martin had originally gone to Montgomery with an image, a vision, perhaps, of being pastor of that relatively small Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, very middle-class church, and then perhaps to be a dean at the black college there in Montgomery. And it was the action of the people, particularly sparked off by Rosa Parks, which in a deep sense helped him to revision what he was about, why he was there. Out of that, he developed a new sense of himself and at the same moment helped the people to develop a new sense of their selves. And so, this dialectic between him and the community led to an opening that became an opening for the whole country and eventually, in many ways, for many parts of the world.
AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about that last year and Memphis. When had you spoken with him last?
DR. VINCENT HARDING: I’m not sure that I can tie that down, Amy. I know that one of my major memories of that last year, 1968, was seeing Martin in Ralph Abernathy’s church at a gathering of people who had come in from across the country to talk about the Poor People’s Campaign. And there were poor white from Appalachia, there were Native Americans from various parts of the country, there were Chicanos, Mexicanos from the Southwest primarily, there were blacks from both North and South. And I was just struck by the way in which I saw, I felt in the faces of so many of the people there the question of “Are we really ready to go this far to bring a major challenge across these lines into the face of the nation itself?” But that was the last memory that I have of that year, and I did not speak to him directly before he went to Memphis, but I knew that he was going in, and I knew that he was going, because he was deeply committed to what the struggle of the garbage workers meant to them and meant to the country.
AMY GOODMAN: The Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. King was building is not talked about very much.
DR. VINCENT HARDING: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: We know the “I Have a Dream” speech —-
DR. VINCENT HARDING: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —- and of course his last speech.
DR. VINCENT HARDING: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: But just explain that to us, as we come to the end of Dr. King’s life.
DR. VINCENT HARDING: Martin always understood that race and class were intricately involved in the life of this country. He also understood that the issues of poverty were issues that affected not only black people, but all kinds of other people, including white people. And he knew that if there were to be, as he hoped there would be, an opportunity for the building of this country into its best possible development, then somehow the issue of poverty had to be addressed, and because he was a person of both words and actions, he knew that poverty could not really be addressed unless the poor themselves took action to challenge a country that would not take action on their behalf.
And so, Martin was, towards the end of his life, you may remember, by the last years of his life, he was saying that America had to deal with three — what he called triple evils: the evil of racism, the evil of materialism and the evils of militarism. And he saw those three very much connected to each other. And by organizing the poor, he saw that — especially organizing across racial lines, he saw that as addressing those evils in a way that had to be done by somebody. And he was in a position by 1968 to probably be the only person who could have called those groups of people together and said, “Let us make a common ground to create a new America.” That was his hope. That was what he was working for when he was killed. He was among the poor and calling upon the country to look and see the condition of the poor in order that we might see the possibilities of a new America.
AMY GOODMAN: April 4th is not only the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, but the anniversary of the speech he gave at Riverside Church here in New York, April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was killed. Do you think there’s a connection?
DR. VINCENT HARDING: Amy, I have long felt, and I continue to feel, that it is impossible to understand Martin’s assassination by only understanding a white segregationist man who killed Martin by himself. I am deeply convinced that Martin’s two actions — one, of trying to organize the poor to challenge this government in Washington, D.C. in the Poor People’s Campaign; and Martin’s determination not just to speak out against the Vietnam, but to speak out against the entire imperialist and militarist direction of the country — all of that has to be understood when we try to understand Martin’s assassination. So, yes, I see a connection.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about Dr. King’s evolution in being willing to speak out publicly around the war in Vietnam. How much risk was he taking?
DR. VINCENT HARDING: Let’s talk about a risk that he was very aware of from the outset. And he would put it in these terms: he was at great risk of damaging his own soul and spirit if he did not speak out against what he knew was terrible. King was, in the deepest part of his being, a pastor, caring for those who were beaten up, caring for those who were in need, and, in the great traditional ways of the Christian faith, caring for the most outcast and those who were considered poor and needy. King was always attuned to that. Had he not spoken on behalf of what the war was doing to those people in this country and overseas, he would not have been able to live with himself.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Vincent Harding, former colleague and friend of Reverend King, he drafted King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. We end today’s broadcast with Dr. King in his own words, his last public words, given the night before is death. It was a stormy night. Hundreds of people, many of them sanitation workers he had come to Memphis to march with, packed into the Mason Temple.
REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: And I want to say tonight—I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze, because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.
If I had sneezed—if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama aroused the conscience of this nation and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama to see the great movement there.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.
I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.
And they were telling me—now, it doesn’t matter now. It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us. The pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked and to be sure that nothing would be wrong on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully, and we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”
And then 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. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. King. Within twenty-four hours, he would be dead, assassinated April 4, 1968.