He was a visionary leader whose vision didn't always match with those he led; on the 50th anniversary of King's assassination, NPCA's cultural affairs director reflects on the tumult and joy of his final days.
It had been a rough few weeks for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr; a rough year. On Thursday, April 4, 1968, however, he was in a jovial mood. Standing outside the door of room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, he leaned over the railing to joke with fellow civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. The lightness of King’s mood was reflected in his agenda for that evening. Nothing doing save for a soul food dinner at the home of his friend the Rev. Billy Kyles. King was feeling relaxed. He might even have been smiling when the shot that took his life rang out.
In the aftermath of his assassination, cities burned, and the non-violent civil rights movement faltered. King was murdered just four short years after he had been selected as Time magazine’s Man of the Year and had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Americans began the process of coming to grips with the complex legacy of a man who in death found near-universal reverence. It is easy to forget, however, that in the last year of his life, many had dismissed him as being out of touch, irrelevant or radicalized.
Contemporary audiences view Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an unalloyed hero whose non-violent opposition to segregation and racism literally helped the country to “overcome” its failings. We celebrate his birthday each January and reflect upon the meaning of his death every April. Our National Park System contains two units dedicated to King — his boyhood home and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and a monument on the National Mall. Other sites like the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail and the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument commemorate larger events in which King played pivotal roles.
But 50 years ago, during the last year of his life, King struggled with his increasing lack of relevancy to a movement he had once led. He was beset by critics on the left who thought his non-violent tactics were too accommodating, his anti-war stance too weak. Meanwhile, those on the right felt his mass protests against the war in Vietnam undercut opportunities for black progress by making the race seem unpatriotic and disloyal. How did King fall from the height of his influence and popularity in 1964 and 1965, to become the target of so much fear and loathing in 1967 and 1968?
The answer lies in large part with a speech he gave one year to the day before his murder in Memphis.
Hear the Speeches
Listen to two of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s full speeches referenced in this story.
Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam
I Have Been to the Mountaintop
On April 4, 1967, King addressed 4,000 congregants and guests at New York City’s Riverside Church. He used that speech to deliver a blistering indictment of America’s military involvement in Vietnam. King linked the racism and injustice he had witnessed and fought against at home to the violence he believed American forces were inflicting on civilians abroad. He then demanded an immediate halt to the bombing in both North and South Vietnam and for the complete withdrawal of U.S. military forces.
The Riverside address was not King’s first foray into anti-war activism, but it was his most prominent effort to that date. Close advisors, including Bayard Rustin, had begged him not to mix anti-war protests with his civil rights work. They begged him not to publicly repudiate the policies of President Lyndon Johnson, a powerful ally in the movement to end segregation and a man known for harboring grudges. But King’s mind was made up. Haunted by the images he had seen of Vietnamese children burned during U.S. napalm attacks, the man with the most powerful voice in the struggle to end segregation now dedicated himself to stopping the war in Vietnam. It was a decision that would cost him dearly.
The man who had famously linked his dream to the American dream during his 1963 speech at the March on Washington now spoke of “an American nightmare.” He described the war as a symptom of a national malady, and he described the United States government as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” It was criticism that stung because King had so clearly abandoned his faith in the moral rectitude of the United States.
His detractors, many of them former allies and friends, pounced quickly. The New York Times labeled the speech “Dr. King’s Error” and went on to describe the address as facile slander “both wasteful and self-defeating.” The Pittsburgh Courier, a black-owned and operated newspaper that had done much to support the civil rights movement and King in the past, editorialized that King’s anti-war statements were “tragically misleading” the black community he claimed to serve. The Washington Post insisted that King’s criticism of the Vietnam war had lost him the confidence of his country and his people.
According to author Tavis Smiley in his 2014 book “Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Final Year,” African American journalist and former U.S. ambassador to Finland Carl Rowan wrote that “Negroes had, in fact, begun to grow uneasy about King.” Rowan mused that King’s anti-war stance was motivated less by genuine concern for the victims of war (soldiers and civilians alike) than from a desire to gain publicity for himself. Rowan wrote that King had succumbed to Communist influences and in a nationally syndicated column cited a Harris Poll in which one out of two black Americans surveyed had responded that the civil rights leader was “dead wrong” on the matter of American involvement in Vietnam.
King had faced strong criticism, threats of violence and actual violence before. In 1958, while signing books at a New York City department store, King was stabbed by a woman who was mentally ill. In Birmingham in 1961, King had been repeatedly punched by a white man enraged by his calls for racial equality. And after being arrested in Birmingham in April 1963, King penned “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in part as a response to religious leaders who disparaged his use of disruptive, mass protests to bring about equality and justice. Still, he was ill-prepared for the level of antagonism that his Riverside address generated.
As King scrambled to reestablish his influence and repair his reputation, events began to outpace him. In July 1967, riots erupted in Newark, New Jersey; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Detroit, Michigan. While younger activists such as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown expressed support for the rioters (if not the rioting itself), King held a press conference at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. His appeal for congressional action and public calm fell largely on deaf ears.
Then came 1968 and Memphis. A strike launched by black sanitation workers protesting poor wages and unsafe working conditions began in February. Local activists, including the Rev. James Lawson, began organizing daily marches. When King was asked to come to the city and show his support for the workers, he seized the opportunity to run the kind of non-violent, fill-the-jails, mass protest campaign that had brought the movement such success in Montgomery and Birmingham. In Memphis, King would show the world that the old ways still worked.
The crowds were welcoming and enthusiastic, and on March 18, King addressed 25,000 supporters. But later that month, the first march King led erupted in violence. Memphis in 1968 represented a microcosm of black America with elements of its population that were conservative, liberal and militant. King was unaware of these fault lines within the community and was blindsided when a group called the Invaders, reportedly young Black Power adherents, disrupted the march.
As police moved in to stop the violence and looting, King was hurried from the scene by aides concerned for his safety. In the chaos that ensued, Memphis police shot and killed a 16-year-old black youth. King’s critics, noting his absence, suggested that he had abandoned his marchers to their own fate while he sought the sanctuary of a nearby hotel.
The next week, on Wednesday, April 3, just hours before his death, King spoke at a sanitation workers rally at Mason Temple. Fatigued by bone-deep disappointment and melancholy, he hadn’t wanted to attend but was summoned at the last minute by his close confidante Andy Young, who recognized that the crowd desperately needed to see and hear from King. Once on site, his mood brightened. He told the overflow crowd that he just wanted to do God’s will. The gathering roared.
He related his vision of a mountaintop and a promised land and shared that he was “not worried about anything.” The people, his people, responded ecstatically, and King was buoyed by the love he felt that evening, something he had sorely missed over the course of that long, tumultuous year. As he left the rally for the Lorraine Motel, King was again confident. He had applied for a permit for a second march, which city leaders had refused to approve, but King was determined to march anyway. Tomorrow, he would once more find a way to overcome adversity and lead his people to that promised land.
King’s death at the age of 39 triggered a wide range of emotions, from ambivalence to anger, and it began the process of cementing his reputation as a national hero and martyr. President Lyndon Johnson called King’s murder a tragedy that denied the “very meaning of our land.” The president then pivoted to an appeal for order and expressed sympathy for all those who felt they might never achieve the full rights and respect due to citizens of the United States because of the color of their skin.
Presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy broke the news of King’s assassination to a stunned crowd at an April 4 political rally in Indianapolis. He understood the mood of many blacks in the audience and nationwide would likely turn to vengeance, so he attempted to diffuse the mounting tension. Kennedy shared that he understood the anger that King’s murder must naturally instill in black Americans. He then stated that he understood more fully because a member of his family had also been killed by a white man. Kennedy closed by urging the crowd to pray for the family of Martin Luther King. He then arranged for a jet to fly Coretta Scott King from Atlanta to Memphis to collect her husband’s body.
Writing for the New York Times on April 5th Murray Schumach wrote, “To many million [sic] of American Negroes, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the prophet of their crusade for racial equality. He was their voice of anguish, their eloquence in humiliation, their battle cry for human dignity. … And to many millions of American whites, he was one of a group of Negroes who preserved the bridge of communication between races.”
It was a moving tribute from the same paper that one year earlier had described King’s anti-war address at Riverside Church as “wasteful and self-defeating.”
Time magazine ran a series of letters to the editor in the weeks after King’s assassination. One from the Rev. Lewis P. Bohler of Los Angeles perhaps captured the mood of many Americans regarding the slain civil rights leader. Bohler wrote, “Most of the time I was indifferent to the Reverend Martin Luther King’s activities. Occasionally, I scoffed at his publicity, although I was unconsciously reassured that someone was doing something for humanity. But I cried at his murder.”
Bohler concluded, “Possibly King’s beautiful dream will ultimately result in his being remembered as a man, not a black man.”
In death, King’s reputation among black Americans healed quickly. The low poll numbers, political divisions and distrust that had plagued him throughout 1967 largely vanished. When asked who would serve as King’s pallbearers, an unidentified member of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference is reported to have said, “Every black man in America.”
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The commemoration of the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of one of the most influential Americans of all times. But we should be encouraged to do so in ways that accurately highlight the full breadth of his life and work. King began his career as a civil rights leader reluctantly. He became a galvanizing force for change who developed a reputation for swooping in to take a leadership role in campaigns for justice and equality that had been effectively organized by others. He was sometimes, as in the case of Memphis in March 1968, a poor tactician whose lack of planning facilitated setbacks.
What we also know about King and what consistently eclipses the criticism he faced is that he became the conscience and the voice of the nation regarding issues of race, equality and justice. And that once the calling came for him to act, he did so selflessly and from the front.
About the author
Alan Spears Director of Cultural Resources, Government Affairs
Alan joined NPCA in 1999 and is currently the Director of Cultural Resources in the Government Affairs department. He serves as NPCA's resident historian and cultural resources expert. Alan is the only staff person to ever be rescued from a tidal marsh by a Park Police helicopter.