The Other Side of the Mountaintop
Scholars Assess Nation's Progress -- And an Icon's Rougher Edges -- Four Decades After Assassination

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 4, 2008

Near the end of his life, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. felt cornered and under siege. His opposition to the Vietnam War was widely criticized, even by friends. He was being pressured both to repudiate the black power movement and to embrace it. Some of his lieutenants were urging him to jettison his urgent new campaign to uplift the poor, believing that King had taken on too much and was compromising support for the civil rights struggle.

Today students learn of his powerful "dream" that children be judged not "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Politicians and private citizens of all ideologies summon King's soaring oratory as the inspiration that challenged the nation to better itself. But this beleaguered young man -- he was only 39 when he died -- was not just the icon celebrated at Martin Luther King Day programs and taught in U.S. schools.

His life, like those of other historical figures -- Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt -- has been simplified, scholars say, his anger blurred, his militancy rarely discussed, his disappointments and harsh critiques of government's failures glossed over.

Forty years after King was gunned down by an assassin in Memphis, it is this sharper-edged figure who has come into focus again. To mark today's anniversary, several scholarly reports have been released charting the nation's uneven social and economic progress during the past 40 years. Some scholars and former King associates are using the occasion to zero in on the two issues -- war and poverty -- that were consuming him at the time of his death.

Both have particular resonance now: The United States is engaged in a war in Iraq that has grown increasingly unpopular, and the poor -- despite the concerns highlighted by Hurricane Katrina and the subprime mortgage crisis -- are as voiceless as they were in King's day, advocates contend.

"His challenge was much bigger than being nice," said Taylor Branch, author of a three-volume history, "America in the King Years." "It was even bigger than race. It was whether we take our national purpose seriously, which is the full promise of equal citizenship."

King's legacy, Branch said, should have been to give the nation confidence that it can address big problems such as the crumbling economy, the endangered environment and ending the war. "Instead, our sense of what we can do has kind of atrophied," he said. "We're still imprisoned by the myths of the 1960s" -- that it was a period when the country went off the rails and government overreached.

If King could look across the landscape today, he would see a mixture of progress and regression on the issues he cared about: The overall poverty rate hasn't changed much since 1968, though there has been a big drop among the elderly. Wider income disparities exist between the richest and poorest Americans, but opportunities for educational advancement have broadened and workplaces have become more diverse.

The number of African Americans in prison or local jails, currently more than 900,000, is nearly six times the number incarcerated in 1970. But the growth in the number of black elected officials is even greater, from 1,469 in 1970 to an estimated 10,000 now. One of them, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), is given a serious chance of becoming the next president.

King was not a fan of fawning testimonies to his greatness, but in the years since his death about 770 streets and 125 schools have been named after him, according to research by Derek H. Alderman, an East Carolina University geographer. The street-namings are fitting tributes to King's legacy, Alderman said, because so much of the civil rights movement unfurled in the streets. Roads link our homes to our schools to our jobs, "the three areas where we struggle the most to negotiate our differences," Alderman said.

But there is an uneasy irony to these tributes: Most of the King avenues run through black communities, often in low-income neighborhoods. In some cities, attempts to rename major thoroughfares -- streets that cross racial and economic boundaries -- after King were met with political resistance.

"Here was this man whose life was committed to bridging races," Alderman said, "and in death his commemoration is largely segregated."

King was the son, grandson and great-grandson of preachers, and he grew up studying and practicing what messages might work best on people. In 1958, Branch said, he traveled 250,000 miles delivering sermons and speeches. As Branch put it, King thought he could preach America out of segregation.

Lawrence E. Carter, dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College, King's alma mater, said that he "recognized the humanity even in people who oppressed him," adding: "He saw in them something that could be redeemed."

But King was not meek, nor were his words always soothing. He called for boycotting discriminatory businesses, sometimes demanding that they advertise in black newspapers and deposit some of their money in black savings and loan associations. He spoke of "cultural homicide" committed against blacks, how their worth and achievements were diminished in schools while white superiority was promoted. In one speech, he even noted that there were 60 "offensive" synonyms for blackness in Roget's Thesaurus, and 134 "favorable" synonyms for whiteness.

But King reserved some of his toughest assessments for the U.S. government, which he called "the greatest purveyor of violence" in the world.

"His admonishments to us of how we ought to live seem to be reflected in his social consciousness, and that is rooted in his understanding of Jesus and the social gospels," said Carter, who met King on four occasions. "When he chastised us for being the greatest perpetrator of violence in the history of the world, think about Jeremiah Wright" -- Obama's former longtime Chicago pastor, who came under fire recently for controversial statements in his sermons.

In a 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York, exactly one year before his death, King explained his opposition to the Vietnam War and tied it to his advocacy on behalf of the poor. The war buildup had "continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube," King said. "So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

"Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools."

Clayborne Carson, a King historian at Stanford University, said he was "politically isolated" in the final years of his life.

"The white liberals had kind of abandoned him because of his Vietnam speech and his decision to take on the war on poverty," said Carson, who was selected by the late Coretta Scott King to edit her husband's papers. "They were attacking him. [President Lyndon B.] Johnson thought he had gone off the deep end. And most black people in the civil rights movement thought he had gone off the deep end. I think it took a toll on him."

Not many Americans, Carson noted, seem aware of the tremendous pressures King faced on so many fronts.

"King sometimes gets suspended in time at the March on Washington in '63," Carson added. "It's kind of a way of Americans patting themselves on their backs."

But Carson sees in King a real paradox. "He was very discouraged. On the other hand, I think he was exhilarated. He was finally doing what he felt he was on this Earth to do -- preach the social gospel, help the poor."

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.

* * *

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.

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.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company