King's Last MarchMARCH 29, 2008
- 1968 march turns violent
- (University of Memphis Libraries)
- View the Slideshow
- Browse photos, multimedia and hear the full hour-long American RadioWorks documentary "King's Last March"
More From Desiree Cooper
More From Michael May
Friday is the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. We think of him as the peaceful optimist who dreamed of a better America in 1963. But in the year before he died, King had a different reputation: He took on the Vietnam war, alienating the public and President Johnson.
In response, the FBI wiretapped King, fanned rumors of his sexual indiscretions and linked him to communists. Undeterred, King launched what may have been his most ambitious mission: the end of poverty.
This weekend, American Radio Works debuts a documentary called "King's Last March." It explores the final year of his life. Producer Kate Ellis joins us to talk about his words and actions. First, one of King's first speeches protesting the Vietnam War:
I talked in Washington in 1963 about my "Dream," and we stood there in those high moments with high hopes. And over and over again, I've seen this dream turn into a nightmare.
I've seen promising young black boys, who are already facing discrimination at home, going away and dying in disproportionate numbers in Vietnam. We are 11 percent of the population here, and we are 22 and four-tenths percent of the dying force in Vietnam. These are facts that we must hear. When somebody tells me that these two issues can't be mixed, they are mixed. I didn't mix 'em, the war mixed 'em.
Our nation spends approximately $500,000 to kill every enemy soldier. And we spend about $53 a year on every person categorized as "poverty-stricken." And half of this goes to the salaries of those who are not poor.
Desiree Cooper: Kate, listening to that, one wonders why he felt so compelled to go from racial equity to issues of war and poverty.
Kate Ellis: Well, as he says in this, and says many times, they are not separate issues. Johnson and King had been allies in the war on poverty, in getting really important civil rights legislation passed. But as the war in Vietnam escalated, he really felt like his dream was turning into a nightmare -- because all of the country's money and priorities were going to fight what he thought was an unjust war in Vietnam. I think his feeling was, how could you not see the ways these were connected?
So what did happen when he took public stand?
Well, the press went after him, the mainstream press. The New York Times practically called him a traitor. And mainstream civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League also criticized him for hurting his cause, civil rights, and thought he had made a grave tactical error by coming out against the war.
And he started to suffer personally because of that reaction. Let's hear another cut from one of his speeches:
He may not have reached the highest height... He may not have realized all of his dreams, but he tried. Isn't that a wonderful thing for somebody to say about you? "He tried to be a good man. He tried to be a just man. He tried to be an honest man. His heart was in the right place." And I can hear a voice saying, crying out through the eternities, "I accept you. You are the recipient of my grace because it was in your heart. And it is so well that it was within thine heart.
I don't know this morning about you, but I can make a testimony. You don't need to go out this morning saying that Martin Luther King is a saint. Oh, no. I want you to know this morning that I'm a sinner like all of God's children. But I want to be a good man! And I want to hear a voice saying to me one day, "I take you in and I bless you, because you try.
Kate, what does this speech reveal about King and his mindset in that moment?
He gave that sermon at his home church, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, exactly a month before he died. And in that time he was struggling with depression and exhaustion and incredible self-doubt. In the last year of his life, he was really taking on the issue of poverty -- he was asking for an end to poverty. And in his darkest moments, he had to acknowledge to himself that he might fail. And King often used his sermons to comfort himself, as well as his congregation. And I think this is a good example, where he was helping to preach himself through his self doubts and saying, "Ultimately, I hope and believe that God will judge me well for having tried."
And he did continue to try. And in the last month of his life, he was drawn to Memphis.
What he was doing in the winter of 1968, he was organizing a poor people's campaign, a massive march to Washington where people from all over the country, from many different backgrounds -- Appalachian whites, poor Indians -- were going to come to Washington and they were going to stay. Camp out, build a shantytown, and they were going to shut down the city through non-violent civil disobedience. It was an incredibly audacious, ambitious undertaking. So the organization was stretched really thin when King got a call from a close friend and ally in the Civil Rights movement saying: "There are sanitation workers striking in Memphis and we could really use your help. It's been going on for a while. We could really use you, just come and make a speech."
So let's hear a clip from that. It's just two weeks before he was murdered.
And I come by here to say that America, too, is going to hell if she doesn't use her wealth. If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God's children to have the basic necessities of life, she, too, will go to hell.
What strikes you about this speech?
That his words for America are pretty strong -- to say that America is going to go to hell if she doesn't use her wealth to help the poor.
And there's an eerie comparison here to what we've been hearing from Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's minister.
At the same time, King was always careful to say, "I love America. I love America so much I'm going to tell you when you're wrong." And so, in some ways, I would have to compare him more to Barack Obama, who says, "We're not perfect, but we can be perfected." And I think that's a closer connection to King's message than some of what I've heard Reverend Wright say.
Now let's listen to a bit more of the speech. And it does seem, as pointed out in the documentary, that an idea occurs to him in the middle of the speech.
I tell you what you ought to do, and you're together here enough to do it: In a few days, you ought to get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.
What happened after that speech?
He promised to return to lead a march for them. He did, and it turned violent. It was the first march King had led that turned violent, and it was a disaster for him. So King vowed to return a few days later to lead a peaceful march. He felt he needed to do that, to prove he could still control a march, especially since he had the poor people's campaign coming up. He returned on April 3, gave a speech that night called "I've Been to the Mountaintop," where he actually talked about the possibility of him dying, and said: "I may not get there with you, but we'll get to the promised land." And the next day he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.
What does it mean that he was killed at that moment?
I don't think it makes so much difference that he was at a low point or a high point in his career -- it was that he wouldn't stop, no matter what. He was shot down while he was taking on an even bigger challenge.
Was it hard to live with him for a year? To have his words and voice in your ear and then have him die?
Yeah. I'm really sad. I'm sad. It sort of sounds funny, because it's been 40 years.
Kate, I want to thank you for bringing this particular story about King to light.
You are welcome.
- Music Bridge:
- Honest James
- Artist: Thurston
- CD: Trees Outside the Academy (Ecstatic Peace)