The view from the mountaintop: Martin Luther King's turbulent, tragic last year

Jerry Adler
Senior Editor

Fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., who preached nonviolent resistance to oppression and war, was shot to death in Memphis. He was 39 years old. He left behind a wife and four children and a nation still riven by the divisions he had devoted his life to healing. Yahoo News takes a look back at his life and his legacy in this special report. Jonathan Darman assesses King as a man not without flaws, but with a passion for justice and a conviction that grace can still be found here among us sinners on earth. Senior Editor Jerry Adler looks back on the fateful last year of King’s life, beginning with his electrifying, and controversial, Riverside Church address against the war in Vietnam. National Correspondent Holly Bailey goes back to Selma, Ala., whose poverty moved King to increasingly turn his focus to economic justice, and finds not much has changed in the years since. Reporter Michael Walsh looks at how King almost died in an attack a decade earlier, and how the knowledge of his mortality shaped his ministry and message. Gabriel Noble’s video explains how a new generation of activists draws inspiration from King’s message.

On April 4, 1967, a Tuesday, Martin Luther King Jr. took the pulpit at New York’s Riverside Church, the great Gothic cathedral conceived by John D. Rockefeller Jr., to deliver a speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” It announced a decisive shift in King’s message and ministry, from desegregation to a broader engagement with pacifism and social and economic justice. And it marked the beginning of the final year of his life. Exactly one year later, the concerns he spoke to that day would lead him to support a strike by sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., where he was shot and killed.

Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. (Photo: John C. Goodwin/UMC).

“I come to this great magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice,” he said at the beginning of his talk, before a crowd of more than 3,000 that filled the immense church. “A time comes when silence is betrayal. That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.” He went on to describe how Great Society antipoverty programs, “the real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white,” had been left “broken and eviscerated” by the costs and the social divisions imposed by the war. “We [are] taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. … We have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.” He invoked his ministry, “in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them.” And in his summation, he quoted from one of his favorite hymns, written more than 120 years before by the abolitionist James Russell Lowell:

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide

In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side

Opposition to the war was not a new position for King, although it may have been news to some of his followers. Two years before, he had expressed his view that military action in Vietnam was “accomplishing nothing,” but that came in a question-and-answer session after a speech, and it attracted little attention. As the war escalated through 1965, the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference authorized him to pursue his own peace initiatives, drawing a warning from an assistant secretary of labor, George Weaver, described by the New York Times as “one of the highest-ranking Negroes in the Johnson administration,” that he risked provoking a “miscalculation” by the North Vietnamese or their patrons in the Soviet Union or China.

TIMELINE: Martin Luther King Jr.’s final year >>>

So he understood the risk he was taking. He would be breaking decisively with Lyndon Johnson, the president who had done more than any other since Lincoln to advance civil rights. He was being challenged on the left by a new generation of Black Power advocates and harassed by J. Edgar Hoover, whose covert efforts to discredit and destroy King would get new ammunition from his association with the people derisively called “peaceniks.” Peace activists were often labeled “Commies” in those years, and it was King’s long association with the left-wing activist Stanley Levison, whom Hoover suspected of being a Soviet agent, that brought King under FBI surveillance in the first place. Ironically, as the historian Taylor Branch points out, Levison was actually opposed to King’s involvement in antiwar causes and tried to talk him out of giving his Vietnam speech. (“I lost,” Levison told associates, in a wiretapped phone call, “and we’ll just have to live with the consequences.”)

Protesters in front of the University of Wisconsin on April 28, 1967, where King was speaking. (Photo: AP)

But King was being pushed in the other direction by another influential aide, James Bevel, a fiery preacher from Mississippi, who saw the Vietnam War as an extension of America’s oppression of nonwhites. (Ironically, after King’s death, Bevel would become a supporter of Ronald Reagan and later drift to the fringes of politics as the running mate of perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche.) And King was pushed, more than anything else, by the logic of his own commitment to nonviolence. How, he wondered, could he demand that his own people brave police clubs and dogs without striking back, and not denounce the bombs the United States was dropping on children on the other side of the world? “It has been my consistent belief and position that non-violence is the only true solution to the social problems of the world and of this country,” King wrote a supporter just before the Riverside speech. “The principle of love which has motivated so many to strike out against the evils of racism here in America must motivate us to protest the brutal destruction of the Vietnamese People.”

In the spring of 1967, King, notwithstanding his 1964 Nobel Prize, was not quite the towering figure we look back on today. The great victories he had helped win — the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — were receding into the (recent) past. The SCLC was in disarray and debt. King’s effort to tackle racial segregation in the North was foundering on the discovery that housing was a much more complicated and nuanced issue than whites-only lunch counters. King’s antiwar activism, while popular among the antiwar left, wasn’t winning many converts even among his allies in the civil rights movement, some of whom supported the war on principle, while others worried it would dilute his message about race. Within days of King’s speech the leading mainline civil rights group, the NAACP, disassociated itself from his stance, with a declaration that “we are not a peace organization nor a foreign policy association. We are a civil rights organization.” An editorial in the New York Times on April 7 (“Dr. King’s Error”) chastised King, in measured Times-speak, for making “too facile a connection between the speeding up of the war in Vietnam and the slowing down of the war against poverty.”

King’s life was already hectic and was about to get more so. He spent his last year crisscrossing the country in a whirl of speeches, sermons, meetings, rallies and marches. David Halberstam, who profiled him in the summer of 1967 for Harper’s magazine, noted that “most of King’s life is spent going to airports, and it is the only time to talk to him.” The period has been chronicled in a number of places, notably including the final volume of Branch’s magisterial trilogy on King’s life, “At Canaan’s Edge,” and a new HBO documentary, “King in the Wilderness.” Local newspapers reported on his visits whenever he touched down, in articles that make for arresting reading 50 years later, with their casual references to “Reds” and “Negroes,” which is the word King himself used. (It would be another year before the Amsterdam News, Harlem’s leading publication, totally banished the term in favor of “blacks.”) A partial list of the places King visited during that year includes, besides New York and his home in Atlanta: Boston; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Cleveland; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Miami; Grinnell, Iowa; Clarksdale, Marks and nearby towns in Mississippi; Geneva, Switzerland (for a world peace conference); Newcastle upon Tyne, England (to receive an honorary degree); Acapulco (for a two-day vacation); and, of course, Memphis. Along the way he rebuffed appeals to run for president as a peace candidate, served a five-day sentence in the Birmingham, Ala., jail, was accused by Hoover, in a secret report to Johnson, of plotting to blow up the Chicago Loop, and was bequeathed the entire estate — amounting to less than $10,000 — of the New Yorker writer Dorothy Parker, who admired him although they had never met.

King leads a Vietnam War protest on April 15, 1967, in New York City, attracting 125,000 people, many of whom joined him in voicing a repeated demand to “stop the bombing.” (Photo: AP)

A few days after the Riverside speech, King flew to California for a series of speeches. He held a press conference in part to deal with the repercussions of the address, at which he clarified, apparently for the benefit of donors to the SCLC, that he was not seeking to merge the civil rights and peace movements — meaning their contributions wouldn’t go to support his antiwar activism. By April 15 he was back in New York for a large and unruly march and rally for peace at the United Nations, alongside the antiwar activists Harry Belafonte and Benjamin Spock. “Many Draft Cards Burned — Eggs Tossed at Parade” was part of the headline in the next day’s Times. Citing some of the banners, signs and chants, the story introduced readers of the Times to a new slogan: “No Vietnamese ever called me nigger.”

Over the next few months King made repeated trips to Cleveland, one of four cities he had designated as a focus of his campaign to improve housing and job opportunities for blacks. He denounced the city’s crackdown in response to the previous summer’s riots, telling reporters, “a get-tough policy should mean getting tough against poverty, inferior education and rat-infested slums.” Meeting with local ministers and civil rights leaders, he involved himself in the details of local organizing: rent strikes, voter registration drives and “Operation Breadbasket,” targeted boycotts meant to force businesses to hire more black workers. “We’re not begging for freedom any more,” he told a press conference in May. Among a handful of reports on King’s local activities published by the Plain Dealer that summer and fall was a front-page picture of him relaxing on the lawn of a local activist, dressed, as he almost invariably was in photographs from those years, in a dark suit, white shirt and necktie. He was tossing a football to a couple of youngsters, including his sons, Martin III and Dexter, who were along for the trip.

On June 12, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of eight black African-American ministers, including King and his brother, for contempt of court, stemming from a demonstration in Birmingham four years earlier. Bull Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety, had denied the group a permit to march, but they did anyway, invoking the doctrine of civil disobedience to illegitimate authority. In a 5-4 decision, with Chief Justice Earl Warren among the dissenters, the Court overruled that defense and ordered the men to serve their sentences and pay a $50 fine. Even if forbidding the march was unconstitutional, the decision held, the proper remedy was to appeal the denial to the courts. A few months later, one of the justices in the majority, Tom Clark, was replaced by Thurgood Marshall. Marshall, a civil rights hero in his own right, became the first African-American on the court, and, it’s safe to say, would have tipped the balance to the other side.

King was in and out of Cleveland and Chicago at least a half-dozen times that summer. In August he returned to Atlanta for the SCLC convention, where he announced plans to “dislocate” Northern cities with a campaign of “mass civil disobedience.” In a long speech titled “Where Do We Go From Here?” he enumerated achievements in Chicago and Cleveland, including the hiring of more black contractors by major department stores and taking out advertisements in Negro newspapers. The speech was well received, and the audience broke into applause and affirmation as King moved into his peroration with one of his signature aphorisms: “Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But reading it today one is struck by the realization that just a few years earlier King had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to overturn a century of injustice and oppression and had stood in the Oval Office as Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. A gap had opened between King’s soaring rhetoric and the grindingly slow process of bringing concrete improvements to the lives of millions of people in big-city ghettoes and the ramshackle towns of the Old South. The arc of the moral universe would have to be very long indeed if its course were to be measured by the hiring of more “Negro insect and rodent exterminators, as well as janitorial services” by chain stores in Chicago’s South Side.

King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left, are met by reporters as they emerge from the Jefferson County jail in Birmingham, Ala., on Nov. 6, 1967. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

At the end of October, King and three others, including his brother, the Rev. A.D. King, surrendered in Birmingham to serve their sentences. “As we leave for a Birmingham jail today,” King said, “we call out to America: Take heed. Do not allow the Bill of Rights to become a prisoner of war.” He did not follow up on plans to write a sequel to his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail” of 1963, although he did compose an essay, “A Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged,” that was later published in the New York Times. The men were released after four days; King’s close aide Rev. Ralph Abernathy joked that since the lawyers had failed to keep the pastors out of jail, he was going back on his promise to keep them out of Hell. On being released, King announced plans to visit the Soviet Union. This was a trip he never made.

TIMELINE: Martin Luther King Jr.’s final year >>>

Now things began speeding up. On Dec. 4 King announced plans for a “poor peoples’ campaign for jobs or income,” which would take the form of a march on Washington the following spring. “In a news conference here,” the Times reported from Atlanta, “the winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace acknowledged that the ugly mood of many Negroes in the nation’s slums made the campaign ‘risky,’ but he asserted that ‘not to act represents moral irresponsibility.’” The reporter observed that “the Negro leader’s mood seemed deeply pessimistic.” A whirlwind of fundraising and planning for the march ensued, interrupted by more speeches and rallies. In January, he visited Joan Baez in jail in Oakland, Calif., where she was serving a sentence for staging a sit-in to protest the draft. On the men’s wing, he visited another peace activist, Ira Sandperl. Sandperl was struck, Branch writes, by the “contrast between the well-tailored figure in starched cuffs and the face of weary depression. King asked a favor. ‘When I’m in jail in Washington,’ he said, ‘come visit me there.’”

On Feb. 4, King was back in Atlanta in the pulpit of his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, where he preached what has become known as the “Drum Major” sermon, musing on the all-too-human desire for recognition. The text is from the 10th chapter of Mark, in which the apostles James and John request the honor of sitting alongside Jesus. This impulse is the root of the social evil of racism, King said, “a need some people have … to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first,” and also of the personal vices of jealousy, arrogance and pride. That thought in turn led him to consider his own place in history and how he would want to be remembered and eulogized. “I don’t want a long funeral,” he said. “Tell them not to talk too long. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize — that isn’t important.” He wanted to be remembered, he said, as someone who served others, who tried to feed the hungry and serve humanity and who “tried to be right on the war question.” “Yes, Jesus,” he concluded, “I want to be on your right or your left side, not for any selfish reason. … I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.”

It was also in February that King appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show, where Belafonte, a close friend, was filling in as host. King mentioned he had flown up from Washington on a plane that had been delayed by “mechanical difficulties,” and he was glad to land safely. “I don’t want you to think that as a Baptist preacher, I don’t have confidence in God in the air,” he said. “It’s just that I’ve had more experience with him on the ground.”

“Do you fear for your life?” Belafonte asked.

“Not really,” King replied. “Ultimately it isn’t important how long you live — it’s how well you live.” He was 39.

King, alongside the Rev. Andrew Young, executive vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, speaking on March 2, 1968, says the “poor people’s campaign” is demanding action by Congress to provide jobs for the poor. (Photo: AP)

On March 3 he returned to Ebenezer to preach on “Unfulfilled Dreams,” about world-historical figures who never achieved their greatest goals — like Gandhi, who lived just long enough to see his dream of a united India shattered by religious war and partition, or King David, who died before he could build a temple to the Lord. Each of us is building our own temple, King told the worshippers. We are all traveling to a destination, and what matters isn’t whether we reach our destination, but that we are on the right road.

He was hurtling toward his own destiny, and perhaps he sensed it. Certainly those around him did. His aides worried he was pushing himself too hard, in danger of burning out, or of losing control of the civil rights movement as more militant figures rose to prominence, mocking his lifelong commitment to nonviolence. He spoke in Detroit in mid-March, then flew to Los Angeles for speeches and meetings where, Branch writes, he let himself be talked into committing to visit “Indian reservations and migrant labor camps from California to Appalachia and Massachusetts” in the run-up to the Poor People’s March, whose start was barely more than a month away. Then he took a call from James Lawson, a preacher and organizer in Memphis, urging him to speak at a rally in support of a strike by the overwhelmingly black sanitation workers’ union. So he flew into Memphis by way of New Orleans on March 18, arriving to a packed auditorium at the Mason Temple to deliver a rousing address.

“We are tired of being at the bottom! We are tired of our men being emasculated so that our wives and daughters have to go out and work in the white lady’s kitchen,” he thundered. As the cheers filled the packed hall, he promised that he would be back.

King is flanked by Abernathy, right, and Bishop Julian Smith, left, during a civil rights march in Memphis on March 28, 1968. (Photo: Jack Thornell/AP)

From Memphis, King descended into the Delta, visiting towns in some of the poorest counties in the United States, speaking in what the Times called “a shabby firetrap of a building whose interior walls are covered with funeral-parlor calendars” showing a suffering — white-skinned — Jesus on the cross. “I am very deeply touched,” King told mothers who couldn’t afford shoes for their children. “God does not want you to live like you are living.”

Then he got back on an airplane to meet with supporters in New York, visiting a Harlem tenement where a local activist, Mrs. Bennie Fowler, cooked him lunch and served it beneath a clothesline strung across her dining room. He apologized for canceling some appearances, explaining “I’ve been getting two hours’ sleep a night for the last 10 days.”

Then he returned to Memphis for a march that started late and quickly turned ugly, with looting, cops injured and shooting back and hundreds arrested. King back in his hotel room was overcome with remorse (according to FBI transcripts of his wiretapped phone conversations), blaming himself for being unable to rein in the anger he had always hoped to keep from spilling over into violence.

“Maybe we just have to admit that the day of violence is here,” he said in despair to his aides. “And maybe we have to give up and let violence take its course.” Then he flew home to Atlanta.

A police officer uses his nightstick on a youth reportedly involved in the looting that followed the breakup of a march led by King on March 28, 1968, in Memphis. (Photo: Jack Thornell/AP)

Newspapers around the country denounced King as an agitator and troublemaker, following, in some cases, scripts that had been surreptitiously provided by Hoover’s agents. King flew to Washington to preach a Sunday service at the National Cathedral, describing the poverty and misery he had seen the week before in Mississippi. That day, Sunday, March 31, ended with Johnson’s speech announcing he would not run for another term as president in November.

And then King returned to Memphis for a third time. His aide Xernona Clayton had picked him up at his home, where, she recounts in “King in the Wilderness,” his two sons had uncharacteristically tried to keep him from leaving. “He said, what in the world happened to these kids. They must be trying to tell me they’re missing me more, and when I come back I’ve got to change my habits.”

His flight out of Atlanta was delayed because of bomb threats, and he arrived at the Mason Temple amid a Biblical-magnitude thunderstorm. He spoke about the strike and Operation Breadbasket, and he repeated his warnings about violence: “We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles; we don’t need any Molotov cocktails.” He recalled the time he had been stabbed at a book signing in New York, an attempted assassination that came very close to succeeding. Doctors told him just a sneeze could have ruptured his aorta, and then “I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had,” and “I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great movement there.”

“And then I got into Memphis,” King continued. “And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out, or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers.

King speaks at a rally on April 3, 1968, in Memphis. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

“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. 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.”

And he ended with a line from the great Civil War anthem, the Battle Hymn of the Republic:

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

That was the night of April 3, 1968.

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