A Hometown Look Back at
Dr. King’s Assassination
My heart longs to be in Memphis, Tennessee on Wednesday, April 4, 2018 as part of the crowd honoring the
sacrifice and legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For months, I kept hoping that there was some way I
could get down to Memphis to stand, as a grown woman, where I stood as a little girl watching history unfold
before my eyes.
It hardly seems possible that it has been 50 years since his assassination, but this 50th year celebration in
Memphis honors the sacrifice of an African American leader who died in the service of peace, justice and a
commitment to change the heinous treatment of African American people in the United States. In honoring Rev.
Dr. King, we also honor all of the people who worked along side of him and who followed him into battle against
racism and injustice. Rev. Dr. King was killed, along with many, many others, whose deaths were largely
unknown and unrecorded outside of their families, but who also died for the freedom struggle.
On February 1, 1968, two African American sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were sitting at the
rear of a garbage truck because it started to rain. They were crushed when the truck’s mechanism
malfunctioned and fell on them, yet the City refused to pay any kind of compensations to their families. Their
deaths were the catalysts for the Sanitation Strike of 1968 for a decent wage and safe working conditions for
African American men. These men were hired to empty garbage from the cans, but could never drive the garbage trucks because those higher-paying, safe jobs were
for white men. The Sanitation Strike was stalled because Mayor Henry Loeb refused to negotiate with the strikers and so the Rev. Dr. King was invited to lead a march
on their behalf and to bring national exposure to these poor, striking garbage men. Rev. Dr. King interrupted his plans for The Poor People’s March, and arrived to lead
a march on March 28, 1968 that erupted in violence.
As a man of peace and a leader who practiced non-violence, he vowed to return to Memphis and lead a non-violent demonstration in support of the sanitation strike.
He returned on April 3, 1968, despite being sick, and gave his famous, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple. The next day, April 4, 1968, Rev. Dr.
King was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel at 6:01 p.m. and pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
For those who didn’t live in those times, it can be hard to understand how concrete hard racism was in 1968. Living in Memphis during this time, we were not even
confident that the doctors at St. Joseph’s Hospital had tried to save his life. White racism was so pervasive, that he would not have been the first Black man that
doctors let die by doing nothing to save his life. Years later, I read a medical report that
listed his injuries based on one bullet fired from a high-velocity rifle. This single bullet
entered the right side of the face approximately an inch to the right and a half inch below
the mouth. The bullet fractured Rev. Dr. King's jaw, exited the lower part of the face and
reentered the body in the neck area. It then severed numerous vital arteries and fractured
the spine in several places, causing severe damage to the spinal column and coming to
rest on the left side of his back. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who was our
“drum major for peace” was now gone on to be with Jesus and the ancestors.
While some of us live the inequalities in Madison and others of us read about the
inequalities for African Americans and people of color that exist in our city and state, we
know that the struggle for social and economic freedom is not over. We have to ask
ourselves on the 50th anniversary of the death of Rev. Dr. King, what is our commitment to
change injustice, personally and collectively, right where we live and work.