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The Other Side of the Mountaintop

Video
Matthew Lewis, a Pulitzer Prize winner and 25-year veteran of The Washington Post, looks back at covering the 1963 March on Washington, Martin Luther King six weeks before his death, and the riots that engulfed parts of Washington, D.C., after King's assassination.Video by Lucian Perkins/washingtonpost.com

Some of King's aides didn't share his enthusiasm for a planned Poor People's Campaign for jobs and income in Washington in April 1968. King envisioned leading a "multiracial army of the poor" to demonstrate and camp out in tents around the city. But first, there would be an unscheduled detour through Memphis.

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Taylor Rogers, now 82, remembers what it was like to haul garbage in Memphis in 1968: "You could work a 40-hour week and be eligible for welfare." Rogers had eight children and no benefits. "We had nothing, just work." And the work, done for $1.80 an hour, was messy and degrading.

"You would go back in people's back yards, put the garbage in tubs and bring the tubs back out to the truck," he recalled. "The tubs had holes in them, and garbage would leak all over you. Sometime you had to take your clothes off to keep them maggots off."

On Feb. 1, 1968, during a heavy rain, two black sanitation workers were crushed when their garbage truck's compressing mechanism was triggered. Less than two weeks later, 1,100 of Memphis's 1,300 sanitation and sewer workers walked off the job in what would become a 65-day strike for increased wages and better working conditions.

"We just couldn't take no more," said Rogers, who started as a sanitation worker in 1958 and continued for 34 years. "We decided we were going to stand up and be men."

The workers staged regular nonviolent marches, led by the Rev. James Lawson and local ministers. King made his first appearance in support of the sanitation workers on March 18. He returned 10 days later to lead a march, which turned into chaos when militant youths smashed storefront windows and started looting, and police responded with force. The violence left at least one dead, 62 injured and 218 arrested, according to local news reports.

King was despondent after the day's events, which increased pressure on him from close aides and Memphis officials to leave the strike alone.

But King was determined to return to lead another, better-planned nonviolent march -- what was billed as a "dress rehearsal" for his anti-poverty drive in Washington.

Back in Memphis on April 3, the night before he was killed, King decided to skip a rally at Bishop Charles Mason Temple. The weather was stormy, there were early reports of a thin crowd, and King was not in the best of moods. He sent a close friend and adviser, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, to speak for him.

But when Abernathy and other King aides arrived, and felt the energy in Mason Temple and the mounting anticipation by sanitation workers of a King speech, Abernathy phoned King and told him to get over to the rally quickly.


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