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50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Standing with Striking Workers, Resisting White Supremacy and State Violence Against the Black Community

April 3, 2018

For people who were part of the Civil Rights and Black Freedom Movement between the 1950s and the 1970s, the murder of organizers was all too frequent.

White Supremacists, which were often part of the law enforcement community, were the ones responsible for the assassination of many of the leaders and organizers within the Civil Rights Movement. They took the lives of people like Medgar Evers, Bobby Hutton, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today is the 50th Anniversary since they took the life of Dr. King in Memphis Tennessee, while he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Dr. King had been receiving death threats for years and he knew it was just a matter of time before they took his life. People are somewhat familiar with the death threats against Dr. King and other organizers in the South during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and later with the Freedom Rides. However, what is less known, were the threats that Dr. King received in the North, especially after he moved his operation to Chicago. Dr. King often noted that there were larger crowds and more hate-filled verbal assaults on his life in cities in the North than there were in the South.

When Dr. King was a passenger on a bus or a plan, the departure times were always delayed, because of bomb threats against him, his family and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It is hard to quantify the amount of stress that Dr. King had to endure. However, we do know that after Dr. King was assassinated, the medical examiner who preformed the autopsy, reported that he was surprised to see the 39-year old’s heart had the wear and tear of a 60-year old man.

In addition to the white public backlash against Dr. King, the FBI had been monitoring and threatening Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for several decades. This history of FBI surveillance is well documented in Michael Friedly and David Gallen’s book, Martin Luther King Jr.: The FBI File.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, often referred to the Civil Rights leaders as, “that burrhead King” or “the most dangerous Negro in America.” At one point the FBI even sent Dr. King a letter, suggesting that he kill himself, as you can see in this partly redacted letter.

It is no surprise that the FBI saw Dr. King as the “most dangerous man in American,” considering his own evolution. Dr. King was referring less in his speeches about having a Dream, instead he came to the conclusion in his 1967 speech, Which Way It’s Soul Shall Go, to say: I’m sorry to have to say that the vast majority of white Americans are racists, either consciously or unconsciously.

Dr. King realized that demanding an end to racial segregation was not enough. The fiery minister came to see that racial justice was demanded, that the US should pay reparations to black Americans, that economic exploitation was a crime and that the US war in Vietnam was immoral. In fact, Dr. King had come to believe that, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today was my own government.”

What Brought Dr. King to Memphis?

One of the strongest criticisms that King had developed in the last few years of his life, was a criticism of poverty, economic exploitation and capitalism. In King’s famous speech, Beyond Vietnam, he provides his own commentary on the story of the Good Samaritan, see here on the right. Restructuring the edifice that produces beggars means we need to change the economic system.

In addition to King’s increasing critique of capitalism, King was in the midst of working on the last campaign he was organizing, the Poor People’s Campaign. Dr. King and the other organizers of this campaign were planning on using direct action in the nation’s capital, by having a tent city, where poor people from all over the country would be occupying land in Washington, DC to not only draw attention to the issue of poverty, but also to demand the promissory note that King spoke often about, which is just another way of saying reparations.

Considering Dr. King’s increased focus on economic justice and the Poor People’s Campaign, it’s no surprise that he would support the black sanitation workers in Memphis.

Michael Honey’s well research book, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign, provides critical insight into King’s support for the striking sanitation workers. Honey provides detailed background material on the black population in Memphis and how that community was plagued by poverty and white supremacy.

The sanitation workers were paid substandard wages and were not permitted to organize a union. On top of that, the work conditions were horrid, with white supervisors constantly harassing black employees.

On top of the general climate of exploitation, the black sanitation workers were often forced to seek refuge inside the garbage trucks, just to get out of the rain. On February 1st, 1968, while some of the workers were inside the garbage truck, the compactor malfunctioned and killed Echol Cole and Robert Walker, crushing them. On February 11, 700 sanitation workers attended a meeting and decided to go on strike. A week later the NAACP passed a resolution supporting the strike, as did King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Dr. King arrived on March 18 and that same day gave a speech, where he told the crowd, “You are demonstrating that we can stick together. You are demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one black person suffers, if one black person is down, we are all down.” At that same speech, King not only endorsed the striking workers, he joined others in supporting a city-wide work stoppage on March 28th.

The March 28th city-wide work stoppage also included 22,000 students who boycotted going to school. These students, along with the sanitation workers and people from all over the city marched to demand justice for the dead workers, for the right to organize a union and for better wages and working conditions.

However, the march was disrupted by violence and a 16 year old was shot and killed by Memphis police. Police also followed marchers to a local church, entered the church, released tear gas inside the sanctuary, and clubbed people as they lay on the floor to get fresh air.

The next day, the Mayor of Memphis, Henry Loeb, a Democrat, called for Marshal Law and had 4,000 National Guard Troops brought in to the city.

In response, striking workers and Dr. King decided to organize another march. Dr. King came back to Memphis on April 3 and delivered what would be his last speech that evening at Bishop Charles Mason Temple. 

The next day, while Dr. King, and those with him, were getting ready to go to dinner, he was shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Who Killed Dr. King?

For years the US government presented conclusive information that lone gunman James Earl Ray had shot and killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We were always led to believe that this individual racist had taken the life of Dr. King in a fit of rage over what the man had stood for.

Considering how much Dr. King, and those closest to him, were being monitored by the FBI and local law enforcement, how is it possible for a lone gunman to have shot and killed Dr. King in such a public setting as outside hi motel room? The police were constantly nearby and the motel had been checked by local police for bombs the day before his assassination. Something didn’t seem right.

Along comes William Peppers, a lawyer, who decided to look at this case in greater detail. Peppers interviewed dozens of people who were there in Memphis that day and was able to gain access to lots of documentation and reports on what local law enforcement and the National Guard were doing at the time of Dr. King’s assassination.

After years of research and investigation, William Peppers published a book in 2003 entitled, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King. In this book, the author provides a detailed analysis, along with evidence that 1) either the government was directly involved in the assassination of Dr. King, or 2) the government turned a blind eye to what had happened on April 4, 1968.

What Pepper’s argues is that at a minimum, the US government had turned a blind eye to the assassination of Dr. King. However, what seems more plausible, is that law enforcement agencies and the National Guard had collaborated to participate in and allow the assassination of Dr. King.

How People Reacted to King’s Death?

There were demonstrations and riots all across the US in the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination, with dozens of cities reporting that people were taking out their rage on white-owned businesses.

In Washington, DC, Stokely Carmichael and SNCC were going around the city demanding that businesses close for the day out of respect to the black community. However, the crowd of protestors grew larger by the minute and eventually people were smashing windows and taking items from stores. The National Guard was called in to suppress the uprising.

The scenario repeated itself in cities all across the country, in places like New York, Chicago, Baltimore and Detroit. Michigan Governor George Romney had called in the National Guard to stop people from protesting, much like he had done the previous July during the uprising in July of 1967 in both Detroit and Grand Rapids

How did Grand Rapids Respond to the Death of Dr. King?

On April 5, the Grand Rapids Press put the assassination of Dr. King on the front page.

However, most of the Press coverage framed the reaction to the death of Dr. King in a negative way. The GR Press did interview people from the community to get reactions. 

It states, in an article from the Grand Rapids People’s History Project:

Reggie Gatling, referred to as a black power militant, said, “Members of the black community had a meeting last night and decided we would not give out a public statement that would be reflective of feelings. We’re in mourning for Dr. King, but to say anything further would only give comfort, or possibly discomfort, to white racists.”

What is instructive about Grand Rapids, is how the White Power Structure responded. Again, we refer to the Grand Rapids People’s History Project: 

It is vitally important that we continue to morn the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In addition, we must not forget this history. We must not forget that Dr. King was in Memphis to be in solidarity with sanitation workers who were striking. We must not forget that Dr. King was working on the Poor People’s Campaign, which was a direct action campaign designed to gain reparations for the black community and poor people in general. And we must not forget that the US government was spying on Dr. King, making threats against him and most likely involved with his assassination.

To honor Dr. King’s Legacy, we should practice the same kind of justice and love in our actions and campaigns today. Anything less would be dishonorable.

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