ANDREW YOUNG: He knew when he was going to Memphis he was going to his death. And he’d always said, you know, death is the ultimate democracy. Everybody’s going to die, and you don’t have anything to say about when you die or how you die or where you die. You can only choose what it is you give your life for.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Hey everyone. I’m Jonathan Capehart and welcome to “Cape Up.”
That was former ambassador Andrew Young talking about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Andrew Young was King’s chief strategist with the SCLC — the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
ANDREW YOUNG: None of my mother’s friends wanted me to be associated with that radical Martin Luther King and those crazy Baptist preachers.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Today marks the 51st anniversary of King’s assassination. And so, I’m going to to tell you the story of that day.
Now I know you may think you know this story already. After all, It’s been retold over and over again in newspapers, movies and books. There are probably even other podcasts telling this story today.
But, I’m going to let some of the people who were there tell you. The people who were closest to Martin Luther King Jr. Those who knew him, who argued with him, who followed him — and those who loved him.
This is the first episode in a special two-month ‘Cape Up’ series we’re calling “Voices of the Movement.”
Between sit-downs at a civil rights retreat in January in California and the Faith and Politics Institute’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama in March, I’ve been lucky enough to hear these stories firsthand.
What a privilege and a sincere honor it was to sit at the feet of giants.
To hear their memories of sacrifice and struggle, of hope and tragedy as they followed a young preacher in their collective quest to make America live up to its ideals.
Before we get to the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, let’s start with some background. If you know it already, stick with me.
In the spring of 1968, King led the SCLC. They were planning a march in Washington, D.C., and it would be for what was called the Poor People’s Campaign.
But in Memphis, Tenn., there were some sanitation workers who needed help. For years, they were working for little pay and in dangerous working conditions.
After two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death in garbage compactors, enough was enough. The sanitation men decided to strike.
And they were quickly met with resistance from local officials and police who often tear-gassed and beat the workers who participated in the marches.
King went to Memphis on March 28 for what was supposed to be a nonviolent march. But when young participants began to smash storefront windows, police in riot gear began violently pushing back, beating the strikers with nightsticks.
One person died; 50 more were injured. Hundreds more were arrested.
Andrew Young remembers having hesitations about going back to Memphis to try again.
ANDREW YOUNG: None of us on SCLC staff wanted to get involved in Memphis. We wanted to go on to Washington, which is what he said he wanted to do.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: King did want to go to Washington.
But he also wanted to go back to Memphis.
He believed that if the nonviolent struggle for economic justice was going to succeed, then he had to try again with the sanitation workers.
So, after a heated argument with the SCLC staff, they agreed to find time for Memphis.
On April 3, 1968, after King boarded a flight for Tennessee, it was announced that the plane was being held. All baggage and carry-ons were being searched due to a bomb threat. Such threats against the life of the civil rights leader weren’t uncommon. And after being declared safe, the flight took off.
But people like Hosea Williams and J.T. Johnson, organizers with the SCLC who met King in Memphis that afternoon, were wary.
J.T. JOHNSON: We were skeptical about some things. We knew something was wrong.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: That’s J.T. Johnson. King was scheduled to give a speech at Mason Temple that evening.
J.T. JOHNSON: But then Martin started to feel bad late in the evening. So he asked Ralph Abernathy to go in and fill in for him.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Rev. Ralph Abernathy was King’s closest friend and confidant and a noted preacher in his own right.
J.T. JOHNSON: So when Dr. Abernathy walked In the room in the church he said, “No, these people don’t wanna see me. They wanna see Martin. So we better try to go back and get him some Bernard Lee,” who was driving with Martin Luther King. [We] went back and Dr. King just got up and came on.
But it was storming so Andy Young and James Arthur and myself, we tried to police the outside. We felt something was going to happen. We just knew it. And we were all over that place. But finally we decided: There ain’t nothing we could do, there’s no one out here. So we went back in and Dr. King went on with his speech.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: King gave what would become known as the Mountaintop speech, one of his best-known orations.
[Speech plays] THE REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: I just want to do God’s will. And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I have 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. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: I’ve been to Mason Temple. I led a panel discussion with a surviving sanitation worker who actually participated in the strike. And after we took our seats up near the pulpit where King once stood, audio of the Mountaintop speech played. Imagine sitting in a seat, near where this historic speech was delivered. Hearing the words, seeing the podium, being surrounded by people who told me later they were actually there.
It was an incredible moment to know that I’m sitting in the middle of history and then reflecting on what would happen, or what did happen, the very next day.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE: On April 4, 1968, I was in Memphis, Tenn., at the Lorraine Hotel with Dr. King.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Bernard Lafayette was the program director for the SCLC.
I spoke with him as we were walking into Brown Chapel, one of the stops on the pilgrimage to Alabama this year. He was in charge of getting things ready for the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, which was still scheduled for the next day.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE: He was still in the bed because he was really exhausted from his speech the night before. I’d never seen him exhausted before. But he told me this, he said, “Now Bernard you go on to Washington D.C. and get things started. I’ll be along later.” And then the last thing he said to me is, “The next movement we are going to have is to institutionalize and internationalize nonviolence.”
JT JOHNSON: So the next morning we started moving around and playing around. We’d play around a lot. So Dr. King asked me if I would go to Biloxi, Mississippi and prepare that town -- he wanted to move that whole town to Washington with the Poor People’s Campaign. So I said, “Well, you know, if you ask that’s what I’ve got to do.” And I left.
ANDREW YOUNG: I had just come in from the court case and I hadn’t talked to him all day long and he was feeling so — I mean he was happy and younger and more vibrant than I’d seen him in months.
When I came in he said, “Where have you been?”
I said “I been trying to keep you out of jail.”
“You talking smack to me?”
And I said “No I’m just telling’ you where I’ve been, I’ve been in the court.”
“Why didn’t you call me?”
And I said, “How am I gonna call you in the courtroom?” See?
And he picked up a pillow off the bed and threw it at me. And I threw it back and then we ended up in a — I mean acting like kids in a pillow fight. And then it was five minutes to six and Rev. Billy Kyles came to get us to go to his house to dinner. So he left the downstairs room where Ralph was and went upstairs to his room. And when he came out, I was standing at the bottom of the steps waiting for him to come down when the shot rang out.
ANDREW YOUNG: And when I went up and saw that [pause] he was dead. My first reaction was: You can’t go to heaven and leave us in hell. We should be going with you. See?
J.T. JOHNSON: And I’ll tell you what happened to me, man. And it was sad for me because I pulled up to a gas station with a guy named Arby Kateryna who worked with us — the two of us was together. And this white guy came out and said, “Have y’all heard the news?” I said, “No, what news?” He said he just killed Martin Luther King Jr. And, man, I like passed out. I couldn’t believe it. You know, I just left Memphis. I know this is not true.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE: Oh, I was at the airport in Washington, D.C., and I didn't get a ride. My ride didn't come. So I called the office because Walter Fauntroy was supposed to be there to pick me up, and I called the office and they said that he was out in the streets — 14th and U — trying to stop a riot because Martin Luther King had been shot. Well, to be honest, I didn’t think he was going to die because he was just shot and he'd been stabbed before and didn't die. So, I actually got on the phone to find out what was happening in Memphis with Martin Luther King. I called Associated Press and United Press International — one phone on one ear and one on the other. They were reading the ticker tapes. That’s what they used to use in those days, coming in. And this white reporter, I could hear him sniffling, broke down in tears and cried. I could hear him on the phone. That's how I knew Martin Luther King had died.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: On April 4, 1968, I was in Indianapolis, Ind., campaigning for Robert Kennedy, helping to organize a rally where he was supposed to speak.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: That’s Rep. John Lewis, who I interviewed for “Cape Up” in 2018.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: That moment, I was in the audience, in the crowd, a short distance from Bobby Kennedy. I had heard earlier that Dr. King had been shot, but that’s the only thing I heard. I kept on organizing people, bringing people together, and it was Bobby Kennedy who announced to the crowd that Dr. King had been assassinated.
[Speech plays] ROBERT KENNEDY: I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens and people who love peace all over the world.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: People were so stunned, they like froze in place, and you just heard people crying and sobbing, and I cried. I just felt like something had died in all of us when we heard that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.
There’s some — it was sort of the end of something, because when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, and when Dr. King was assassinated, I think something died in all of us that got to know these two young men. They were our future. Unbelievable. They gave us hope. If they had lived, maybe our country would be much better; maybe the world would be much better.
JT. JOHNSON: I haven’t been back to Memphis. You know, when I go through Memphis, through the airport it bothers me. It just brings back too many memories because I felt and I knew that, after they killed Dr. King, we was finished. We didn’t have a leader. No one could rally African Americans or anybody else around the country.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: But of course, the movement didn’t end that day.
After his assassination, there was despair. There were riots — all over the country.
But there were other leaders to carry on the legacy and the stories.
After the funeral, the SCLC and other organizations continued their work. And continue to do so today.
ANDREW YOUNG: I remember he used to say that, ya know, some of us are not going to make it to 40. He said, but if we make it 40, we can make it to 100. Well, he didn’t make it to 40. So it becomes almost an obligation for me to keep doing whatever I can do as long as I can do it. I’ll be 87 in another month, and I don’t know whether I can make it to 100 or not, but you can’t waste the experience we’ve had.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Andrew Young is right. We can’t look to our future without understanding where we came from.
A lot of people know the story of Martin Luther King Jr. And it is important to keep telling that story. But that is not the entire story of the civil rights movement.
If we’re going to understand the movement of the 1950s and ’60s, there are so many more stories and voices to listen to.
Back at the beginning of 2019, I went to a civil rights retreat led by Clarence B. Jones. He was King’s lawyer and occasional speech writer. He brought together members of the civils rights movement.
And Jones called them to this retreat for a specific purpose. To reflect on MLK’s legacy and figure out how to pass that on to the next generation of activists.
And then at the beginning of March, I also had the honor of attending the Faith and Politics Institute’s pilgrimage to Alabama.
It’s a three-day journey with Congressman John Lewis to places like King’s church in Montgomery and the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
And during these events, I interviewed as many people as I could.
They’re names you know and many you don’t. But they are all significant voices you don’t hear from often enough.
So that’s what we’re going to do. For the next two months, each week here on Cape Up, we’re going to hear their voices. Listen to their stories. And try to understand how we can move forward from here.
We need to hear their stories.
More importantly, we need to heed the lessons of their experience.
As you heard in the urgency of Andrew Young’s comments, we won’t have many opportunities to hear from them for much longer.
And, then there's this: this project is very personal.
The stories you will hear, the voices behind them, the conviction that fuel them, are what made me possible.
Imagine sitting with ordinary people who did extraordinary and heroic things in the past that made your present possible?
No words will adequately express my gratitude to these women and men, these voices of the movement.
Voices like Andrew Young.
ANDREW YOUNG: Everything we’ve done has been almost miraculously spiritual.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: And Clarence B. Jones.
CLARENCE B. JONES: And he says, “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runneth over.”
JONATHAN CAPEHART: And Minnijean Brown-Trickey.
MINNIJEAN BROWN-TRICKEY: I really thought that going to Central was going to be a thing where they would as excited for me to come there as I would to go to that school. And there would be this sharing of what teenage life is like. And I had no idea.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Carolyn McKinstry.
CAROLYN MCKINSTRY: I answered the phone myself, and the caller on the other end — male caller — said, “Three minutes.” And as quickly as he said that., he hung up the phone. And I walked out into the sanctuary. I took about 15 steps. I was at the very beginning of the aisle where the pews start when the bomb exploded.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: John Lewis.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: I called it good trouble. I called it necessary trouble. And every so often, when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just — you have to say no, no.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: This is Voices of the Movement.