At about nine o’clock on Wednesday morning, April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. boarded Eastern Air Lines Flight 381 in Atlanta. Along with four of his top aides he was flying to Memphis on an urgent mission. King and his entourage of smartly dressed African-Americans would have been an eye-catching sight for the 43 other passengers on the airplane. With King were three men — Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and Bernard Lee — and one woman, Dorothy Cotton. The men wore dark suits, white shirts and muted neckties. Cotton was tastefully outfitted in a dignified dress, her hair smartly coiffed in a beehive. In style and demeanor, the five of them might have been a team of high-powered lawyers or corporate executives departing Atlanta on a business trip.
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King would have attracted particular notice. A widely recognizable figure in 1968, he had been in the limelight since the heavily publicized Montgomery bus boycott 12 years before.
Anyone who remembered him as a young man first embracing the civil rights cause in the mid-1950s would have been shocked by the change in his appearance. In 1955 he was just 26 years old, recently hired — “called to the pulpit,” as the expression had it — by the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Photos from that period show him nattily garbed in a dark, loosely fitting suit, necktie and fedora, a white handkerchief poking out of his jacket pocket. There was something about him then, the freshness of the face and the limpid softness of his eyes that conveyed a boyish innocence. It was easy to imagine him as a teenager outfitted in Easter finery for a service at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where his father was the pastor.
Now, in 1968, he was a man in distress. His years in the movement had tested the limits of his courage and endurance. The strain had taken its toll emotionally and physically. He looked run-down, his eyes weary, face puffy and neck straining against a white shirt collar.
He was dog-tired. He had been sleeping badly for weeks. He had been on the road drumming up support for the Poor People’s Campaign, the mammoth antipoverty protest that was to commence in Washington in 19 days.
He had left his house in Atlanta early that morning. His aide and dear friend Ralph Abernathy had driven to the modest redbrick house in the scruffy neighborhood of Vine City to pick him up. King’s wife, Coretta, had offered the men a quick breakfast. No time to eat, they had told Coretta, not even accepting coffee and orange juice.
Although he had scarcely caught his breath at home after two weeks of almost nonstop travel, he was traveling again. This time, though, he was not on another trip to recruit the thousands of poor people he intended to mobilize from around the country for weeks, or possibly months, of demonstrations in Washington.
He was bound for Memphis to lead a march the following Monday. In the spring of 1968 Memphis was a city in turmoil. A bitter strike by 1,200 African-American garbage workers had turned quickly into a racial firestorm. A pro-strike march under King’s leadership six days earlier, on March 28, had spun out of control. Windows had been smashed, many downtown stores looted.
The stakes in Memphis were enormous for him and his movement. The fate of the Poor People’s Campaign and, more broadly, his leadership of the civil rights movement were hanging in the balance. He was venturing back into a city reeling from the trauma of racial conflict and rioting. Even before the trouble in Memphis, his fear of being assassinated had been rattling him. Now he was being widely blamed and denounced for the riot, and the fear of a violent death preoccupied him all the more.
By speaking out sharply against the Vietnam War, as he had been doing for more than a year, he had plunged into a cauldron of controversy. His critics claimed that no true patriot could slam the nation’s military engagement while hundreds of thousands of American troops were in harm’s way. His plans for the Poor People’s Campaign were arousing more hostility against him. He was threatening to plague lawmakers in Washington with militant civil disobedience until they committed the federal government to an immense program to end poverty. To many Americans he was a radical, a threat to civil order. Many believed he was leading the country into an abyss of strife and chaos. By inserting himself into the Memphis strike, resulting in a march turned riotous, he had aggravated the fears. Now he was returning to Memphis to lead another march and restore his credibility as a nonviolent leader. It would expose him to greater controversy, greater risk. Fearful, but courageous in his resolve, he was flying to Memphis, come what may.
The Tennessee city, as Mark Twain wrote in 1882, was “nobly situated on a commanding bluff” overlooking the majestic Mississippi River. For the 60 percent of whites among its total population of 600,000, Memphis had a long, noble tradition, and not just in geography. For them Memphis was a proud Southern city of well-attended churches and well-tended lawns, a paragon of order and civility. At the junction of northwestern Mississippi, Southwestern Arkansas, and southeastern Tennessee, the city stood as the gateway to the Deep South, and it reflected much of that region’s gracious character.
For blacks it was a very different story. Gradual desegregation had been under way since the early 1960s, but the city was still largely divided into two cultures, a dominant class of whites and a subservient class of blacks. The garbage strike, which had begun on Feb. 12, had cast the depth of the racial divide into bold relief. Local historian Joan Beifuss would write that the conflict over the strike had quickly stripped away “the thin veneer of dialogue and handshakes and politeness and kindly interest” and exposed such a “depth of ill will” and “intensity of hostility” as to declare that “the bitterness had always lain somewhere close to the surface.”
The black community had rallied behind the strike. Henry Loeb, the newly elected white mayor, had the strong backing of the white establishment against the strike, and he had taken a hard line against it. As garbage piled up and the strikers staged demonstrations against Loeb’s hiring of replacement workers, tensions mounted by the day.
King had spoken for the first time in support of the strike at a rally on March 18. He had come back to Memphis 10 days later to lead a march. He had been expecting the march to proceed lawfully through downtown streets. Barely had the march begun when it turned violent. Police responded with clubs, tear gas and guns. Four looters were shot, one fatally. Five police officers were hospitalized, and about 60 other people received medical care for their injuries.
Splashed on newspapers and TV screens around the country, the story of the Memphis riot was big news. King was outspoken in deploring the violence, which he attributed to a small number of young rowdies who had tagged along behind the great throng of peaceful marchers. At a news conference the next day, he told a reporter for the Commercial Appeal that he had been blindsided. He said that he had had no warning about the potential for violence and had “no part in the planning of the march. Our intelligence was totally nil.” King went on to fault the police for having dealt brutally with many marchers.
But his credibility as a nonviolent leader who could keep the movement free of violence was under fierce attack. There were potshots from segregationists like Robert Byrd of West Virginia. While not surprising, the invective from the right had more bite than usual. Byrd, then one of the most zealous segregationists in the US Senate, assailed King as a “self-seeking rabble rouser,” as quoted in an FBI memo. If King were allowed to “rabble-rouse” in Washington as he threatened, Byrd declared, the city “may well be treated to the same kind of violence, destruction, looting and bloodshed” that had erupted in Memphis.
The Commercial Appeal echoed Byrd with a scalding editorial on March 30: “Dr. King’s pose as a leader of a non-violent movement has been shattered. He now has the entire nation doubting his word when he insists that his April project — a shanty-town sit-in in the nation’s capital — can be peaceful.” A more sympathetic newspaper, the New York Times, cautioned King in its editorial on the same day against engaging in “emotional demonstrations in this time of civic unrest.”
Worse, King had to contend with spasms of doubt from within the civil rights movement. In 1963 Adam Clayton Powell, the first African-American elected to Congress from New York, had hailed him as “probably the greatest human being in the United States today.” Now he mocked him as Martin “Loser” King. Responding to a reporter’s question about the violent eruption in Memphis, Roy Wilkins, the influential head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, commented about the upcoming antipoverty campaign: “The great danger of Dr. King’s demonstration is that he might not be able to keep control of it.” Privately Wilkins was saying that King ought to cut his losses and scrap the Poor People’s Campaign altogether.
King himself had his doubts. Like Wilkins, he pondered whether he ought to call the whole Washington thing off. Wouldn’t the rioting in Memphis and attacks against King blunt poor people’s interest in joining the Washington demonstrations? “They will hold back if they think they will be in a campaign that will be taken over by violent elements,” King confided to a close adviser. In his despair King thought perhaps he should fast in a show of penance. Ultimately, he did not fast, but he seriously considered it.
If King’s energy on the road had seemed inexhaustible for many years, it was no longer so. Like any flesh-and-blood mortal, he could not maintain his punishing schedule of speaking engagements and almost incessant travel without a physical cost.
He was pushing himself to the brink of collapse. His doctors had hospitalized him or ordered him to days of bed rest for exhaustion on at least four occasions over the previous four years (in October 1964, February 1965, August 1966 and April 1967). By February 1968, the rush to organize the antipoverty campaign was wearing him down to such an alarming extent that he reluctantly heeded his doctor’s advice to rest. Along with Ralph Abernathy, he took a one-week break to recuperate in Acapulco.
It was not only sheer exhaustion that accounted for King’s sinking spirits. His influence as a political and moral force had peaked in the mid-’60s. He was then riding the crest of a series of triumphs: the electrifying “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in 1963; the Nobel Peace Prize bestowed on him the next year; and the landmark desegregation and voting-rights legislation enacted by Congress in 1964 and 1965.
His best years seemed behind him. His venture into the more complex racial and political minefield of Chicago had stalled. Rioting was plaguing the nation’s inner cities, as though defying his nonviolent leadership. Young Black Power militants had captured the dynamism of the movement. By 1968 it seemed that he was “old news,” as his friend and financial backer Harry Belafonte would note in a memoir. The book King published six months earlier, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?,” sold poorly, and many reviewers panned it. For the first time in a decade the name of Martin Luther King Jr. did not appear on the Gallup Poll annual list of the 10 most admired Americans.
The turn of events in Memphis was propelling King back into front-page news, abruptly and disastrously. The torrent of adverse publicity was sapping his usual optimism, testing his resilience. “He was very, terribly depressed, a depression that I had never experienced before, and had never seen,” Abernathy would recall. Somehow over two soul-searching days back in Atlanta, King overcame the gloom, determined to move ahead. He would not yield to despair. He was returning to Memphis, resolved to lead a corrective march untainted by violence. Or so he desperately hoped.
Once aboard the Eastern jet to Memphis, King and his four aides sat close together. King and Dorothy Cotton were in adjoining seats. Hardly had they settled down before the pilot announced, “I have to ask everyone to leave the plane because Dr. King and some of his staff are on the plane and there has been a bomb threat,” as Cotton recounted years later.
A wave of fear rippled through the plane, launching the passengers to their feet. “When the pilot made that announcement, we stood up,” Cotton continued, “and I was moving really rather energetically, and I stepped on Martin’s foot. I said, ‘Don’t you think we should move it? There has been a bomb scare,’ and he sort of glared at me.”
As the other passengers surged down the aisle, King barely moved. Rather than rush off the plane, King “pulled back and let people get off,” Young recalled. That was not how Bernard Lee, who served King as a sort of aide-de-camp and unarmed bodyguard, reacted. Lee hastened toward the exit. He was “the first one off the plane,” said Young. The sight of his bodyguard leaving him behind in that moment of danger had King smiling. It was a moment that he would later play for laughs.
King’s nonchalance did not surprise Young. Threats against King’s life were an almost constant menace. King had a stock reply to reports of death threats against him. He would say that he received them every day, and he could not worry about them, because no one could stop attempts on his life.
Once King and the other passengers disembarked from the plane, police officers brought dogs aboard to sniff for bombs. A thorough check found nothing suspicious. After an hour’s delay the passengers returned to their seats. King turned to Abernathy. “Well,” he said wryly, “it looks like they won’t kill me this flight.”
Excerpted from “Redemption: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Last 31 Hours” by Joseph Rosenbloom (Beacon Press, 2018). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.