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The Other Side of the Mountaintop

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/

It was there that King gave his final speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," which many have described as prescient. He mentioned the threats against his life, the talk about "what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers." But he went on to say: "It really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. . . . 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."

The Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles, a local minister and King friend who was there that night, believes King was forecasting his own death. "I am so certain he knew he would not get there," Kyles said. "He didn't want to say it to us, so he softened it -- that he may not get there." Later, Kyles would tell people that King "had preached himself through the fear of death."

What is often unremarked upon about that speech, however, is how resolute King was in his prescriptions for fighting the injustices suffered by the poor. He urged those at the meeting to tell their neighbors: Don't buy Coca-Cola, Sealtest milk and Wonder Bread. Up to now, only the garbage workers had been feeling pain, King noted. "Now we must kind of redistribute the pain."

The next day, King was in a good mood, almost giddy, Kyles remembered. Kyles was hosting a dinner for King at his home that evening. "I told him it was at 5 because he was never in a hurry." But when Kyles knocked on King's door, at Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, to hurry him along, King let him know he had uncovered the little ruse: He had found out the dinner was actually at 6. So they had some time, and King invited Kyles to sit down. Abernathy was there, too. King liked to eat and was anticipating a lavish soul-food feast, so he couldn't resist razzing Kyles. "I bet your wife can't cook," King told his friend. "She's too pretty."

Just to tease a little more, King asked Kyles: Didn't you just buy a new house? He then told the story of an Atlanta preacher who had purchased a big, fancy home and had King and Coretta over for dinner. "The Kool-Aid was hot, the ham was cold, the biscuits were hard," Kyles recalled King jiving. "If I go to your house and you don't have a decent dinner, I'm going to tell the networks that the Rev. Billy Kyles had a new house but couldn't afford to have a decent dinner."

It was about 5:45 when King and Kyles left the room and stepped onto the second-floor balcony. Abernathy stayed put. King leaned over the rail to gaze at a busy scene in the parking lot eight feet below, exchanging words with his young aide Jesse Jackson, among others. Kyles was just about to descend the steps, with King behind him, when he heard the shot. "And when I looked around, he had been knocked from the railing of the balcony back to the door," Kyles recalled. "I saw a gaping hole on the right side of his face."

Kyles ran back into the room and tried to call for an ambulance, but no one at the motel switchboard answered. He took a bedspread and draped it over King's body.

King was pronounced dead at 7 p.m. at St. Joseph's Hospital.

"Forty years ago, I had no words to express my feelings; I had stepped away from myself," recalled Kyles, now 73, the pastor at Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis. "Forty years later, I still have no words to describe my feelings."

For years, Kyles struggled with an internal question: "Why was I there?" And at some point, he can't remember when, "God revealed to me, I was there to be a witness. Crucifixions have to have a witness."

As for Rogers, one of the sanitation workers King fought for, he retired in 1992 after serving 20 years as the local union president. Forty years after the strike, wages and conditions have improved for Memphis sanitation employees -- crew chiefs and truck drivers can make upwards of $37,000; workers have uniforms, showers and no more leaking tubs to carry. Residents must roll their garbage carts to the curb for pickup.

"The sanitation workers, their jobs are much better," Rogers said. "They can almost wear a suit to work."

Not that some struggles don't continue.

"There are a lot of things we have to work on," Rogers said. "Race relations, for one. Like I say, there is always room for improvement. But Dr. King really didn't die in vain."

Staff researchers Meg Smith and Bob Lyford contributed to this report.

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