NOTE: First published to wmcactionnews5.com. I curated the photos and wrote the copy.
Martin Luther King Jr. made his last speech in Memphis to sanitation workers, who, in his words, were facing the issue of injustice and the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants.” But before the Mountaintop speech and King’s untimely death in April 1968, the civil rights leader influenced Memphis in more ways than one.
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Martin Luther King Jr. flies to Memphis July 31, 1959 for a Freedom Rally, which is part of a political campaign for several African-American candidates running for City of Memphis election.
King rides in a motorcade with two individuals not specified in Memphis Library, Memphis and Shelby County Room documents. King is presumably between leaving at the airport and arriving at the Freedom Rally.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Daisy Bates—leader movement to integrate Central High School—stand in front of the microphone at a Freedom Rally in Memphis, according to the Civil Rights Digital Library. The banner above the two includes photographs of African-American candidates in the city election. The men from left to right made up the “Volunteer Ticket”: Russell Sugarmon running for public works commissioner; Benjamin Hooks for a juvenile court judgeship; and Roy Love and Henry C. Bunton for school board.
Supporters gather in support of the Volunteer Ticket. This is King’s last public visit for years.
Speed ahead a decade later: Two black sanitation workers in Memphis are crushed to death when the compactor mechanism of the trash truck. Other incidents arise for sanitation workers in Memphis, according to the National Achieves. The Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike—for job safety, better wages and benefits, and union recognition—begins February 12, 1968. After days of turmoil between city officials and union leaders, ministers announce that Martin Luther King Jr. will come to Memphis as more than 100 strikers and supporters are arrested for sitting in at city hall.
Dr. King arrives in Memphis March 18, 1968. At this time King is involved in planning with other civil rights workers the Poor People’s Campaign for economic opportunity and equality. About 17,000 Memphians attend a rally where Dr. King calls for a citywide march on March 22, which was eventually postponed to March 28 due to a record snowstorm.
Dr. King leads the March peacefully from Clayborn Temple. It is interrupted by window breaking, which cause police to move into the crowd with mace, tear gas, and gunfire. A 16-year-old is shot to death. Police arrest more than 200; 60 are injured, according to AFSCME’s website. The outbreak of violence deeply distressed King. In the next few days he and fellow SCLC leaders negotiated with the disagreeing factions in Memphis.
Dr. King, with his associate Ralph Abernathy and administrative assistant Bernard Scott Lee, arrive in Memphis on Wednesday, April 3. That morning their flight was delayed in Atlanta for more than an hour by an extensive search for a bomb following a threat against Dr. King, according to the National Archives.
U.S. District Court Judge Bailey Brown grants the city of Memphis a temporary restraining order against King and his associates, according to the National Archives. Dr. King is determined to lead the march despite the injunction.
“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you,” says King April 3, 1968.
Dr. King spends the last day of his life mostly at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. At a SCLC staff meeting the march was postponed until Monday April 8. Later in the afternoon, Dr. King would get ready to go out for dinner. He put on his coat and walked outside room 306.
Officers clutter the courtyard after the shooting. As the word spreads of King’s injury across the world, the search begins for King’s sniper in Memphis. James Earl Ray is eventually convicted.
Officials pronounce the 39-year-old civil rights leader, described by Abernathy as “the most peaceful warrior of the 20th Century,” at 7:05 p.m., April 4, 1968.
A memorial march for Martin Luther King Jr. is held in downtown Memphis on April 8, 1968, which is the day King was determined to lead another march himself. Other demonstrations, like those carried out by grass-roots efforts such as Memphis Cares, also honor King for weeks to come.
One year later on the anniversary of King’s death hundreds across Memphis, and the world, pray and remember a civil rights leader’s legend.
A plaque outside room 306 is eventually moved down to the parking lot at the National Civil Rights Museum. It quotes Genesis 37: 19-20. “They said one to another. Behold. Here cometh the dreamer … Let us slay him … and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”