A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
I still can’t turn it loose.
Even though it has been more than half a century, I can hear that mighty blast, a sound so loud it seemed that a bomb had exploded.
But it wasn't a bomb. It was the triggering of an assassin's bullet and I have a clear picture of Martin Luther King Jr. laying on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel, his head cradled in the arms of the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, his loyal friend and longtime assistant, whispering in his ear.
“Don’t you worry about a thing,” Abernathy said. "Everything is going to be alright."
But the bullet left a massive wound; it tore a hole in the flesh around King's neck and jaw bigger than a balled-up fist. Abernathy – dark, heavy, calm – kept saying words of comfort even though he knew the civil rights leader, who had taken the movement to world-wide recognition and had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, was dying there on the black side of town in Memphis, TN.
As I watched Abernathy, I made notes on the sheath of paper I was carrying as usual for my work as a reporter for The New York Times. I could hear voices shouting desperate orders.
"An ambulance. Call for an ambulance!"
Getting up from a kneeling position alongside Dr. King. I heard myself uttering "going to call the newspaper." I ran down an alley to a pay phone on the wall just outside a restaurant behind the motel office.
Reporters as young as I was then lust for a big story. They tell themselves that they don't want anything bad to happen. . . but if it does, nothing is more important to them than being there. Reporters believe that if you are there, you can see what happens and then you can tell it, the real story, witnessed firsthand.
That day – April 4, 1968 -- was my lesson on what really happens: You are there, yet you don't see everything. But in the tangle of events, there is a sliver of whatever it is that happened that comes past you, and that's precious.
All these years later, I still carry that piece, that sliver of what came past me, that which I witnessed at the Lorraine Motel but could not understand in the moment.
A lot of times, you do not understand the significance of what you see. But when something truly important happens, those pictures do not fade. They stick in the mind. As the poet Robert Frost said, they are there waiting to be understood. And that is the way it was for me.
I did not see the bullet strike King. I was in my room on the ground floor of the motel. King's room was in the middle of the long part of the L-shaped configuration. Looking out from the motel, my room was about four doors to the left of the room King shared with Abernathy.
My door was open when I heard the loud boom that was the shot. In two, maybe three strides, I was in the doorway expecting to see smoke, debris, fire -- but there was none of that. Nothing.
Instead, directly in front of me, beyond the parking lot and atop an embankment across the street, I glimpsed a figure half crouched in the thicket of the high brush. His attention was trained on something at the motel. He was a white man.
What kept him focused on the Lorraine, I did not know –- but I kept my eyes on him, believing he held some clue as to what had happened. He appeared to be wearing something like coveralls. And he was twisting, turning — but all the while, focused on the motel.
My attention was pulled away when, off to my right, I saw some people jumping up and down. I recognized them. They were Dr. King's guys, members of his team. I thought they might have exploded a firecracker. Then a Cadillac roared toward my door. The car stopped, moved back and then jerked forward again.
I recognized the driver, Solomon Jones. He had told me earlier that a local undertaker hired him and provided the car to chauffeur Dr. King during his stay in Memphis. I ran to the car.
"What happened?" I hollered. He didn't answer.
I stepped back. Then, from my position in the parking lot, I saw Dr. King. He was down, on the floor of the balcony.
Ten days before, in New York, I had been called into the newsroom of The Times by national news editor Claude Sitton. It wasn't unusual for me to be summoned to the national desk. I had earned high marks with Sitton during the tumultuous riot-filled summer of '67 and good assignments followed.
But what Sitton outlined to me that day was worrisome. He was sending me to the deep South. I had never worked in that region. For me, a black reporter from Pennsylvania, the South was the land of the bogeyman and I wanted no part of it.
Sitton wanted me to go to Memphis — King was headed there to lead a second march to support striking garbage collectors who were black and protesting low wages and working conditions.
The first march in Memphis that King took part in had ended in violence, although King's organization insisted he didn’t participate in it and was not in control of the event. King's return to Memphis for a second time was meant to prove that a march organized by his Southern Christian Leadership Conference would be peaceful.
Sitton was skeptical. “He’s lost control of his people," the editor told me, adding he wanted me there to "nail" King with my reporting.
"Get down there early," Sitton suggested. "Where King stays, you stay. No matter what, I want you in the same hotel."
That's how I came to be at a motel the regulars called "Sweet Lorraine" on that Wednesday.
King's arrival was a sight to behold. A waiting crowd of hundreds gave him a rock star's reception. He led his entourage to a room on the upper floor off a balcony.
This was his inner circle, his chief assistants. He called them his "wild horses." All of them black, all ministers, all of them under 30 except King and Abernathy.
Memphis was to be a quick visit to help garbage workers — part of the grand project King called the “Poor People’s Campaign.”
Late in the afternoon of his first day in Memphis, Dr. King invited me to join him in his motel room for an interview. He told me he was aware of the concerns and criticism directed at him and his campaign. But he was firm in saying that he wouldn’t be turning back.
King's plan was to gather activists from the antiwar movement, the Civil Rights movement, the Latino movement and others and to bring waves of these people to Washington to force a shutdown of the government until his demand — a job or an income for everyone — was enacted into law.
He already had people visiting black churches, telling parents not to let their sons be drafted and sent to Vietnam. "Give your sons to Dr. King," his emissaries implored. "Let them go with him to Washington to join the fight to end poverty."
After our interview ended, King walked me to the door. Then the two of us stepped out of the room, onto the balcony. We lingered there, leaning against the railing, indulging in a personal chat. Twenty-four hours later, in almost the same spot, at almost the same time, he was struck down by an assassin's bullet.
Although I was a registered guest at the Lorraine and a reporter at the crime scene moments after that fatal shot, nobody ever asked me if I knew or saw anything. But even if they had, it might not have mattered.
The official story came the night of the assassination with a stamp of "case closed." The killer was James Earl Ray, an escaped convict, officials said. Ray fired the shot from the bathroom window of a flophouse a block away.
A manhunt was already in the works.
Two days later, I stood in my motel room doorway and noticed the crime scene had been altered. Across from the motel, the thicket of trees, brush and big weeds all had been cut to within an inch of the ground. But, as it turned out, I was not the only person to have questions about what I'd seen.
As I continued reporting from the motel, I learned that King's driver, Solomon Jones, had reported seeing a man he believed was the shooter in that thicket. Ceola Shave, a housekeeper at the Lorraine, also told of seeing a man in those bushes. Was that the figure that I had witnessed rising in the thicket, I wondered?
In 1972, "The New Yorker" magazine published an article by Gerold Frank, a well-known author and journalist who freelanced. The headline read, "An American Death," and it was billed as "The true story of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the greatest manhunt of our time."
I spoke with Frank a few weeks after the assassination. It was a friendly chat — even though he shared none of his findings. He put me in his book, including a picture of me interviewing people in the aftermath of the crime.
Four years later, I read his book. It was mind-boggling. All the images — the slivers of memory — I carried like freeze-framed pictures in my mind came rushing back.
Frank had gotten access to a lot of witness reports given to authorities — things that black reporters had difficulty getting from officials in the South. I came to one about a man named Harold Carter, better known as "Cornbread. "
"Cornbread" told Frank that he'd been in those bushes behind the flophouses drinking wine with a buddy, "Dude" Wheeler, when King was killed. They were lounging in cardboard boxes and ran out of wine. Wheeler went to get a bottle.
"Cornbread," alone in the bushes, told Frank he heard someone creep through the thicket. At first, he thought it was Wheeler, returning with more alcohol. But the man crept right past him, unaware that anyone was nearby.
"Cornbread" also told Frank that he saw the man go to the edge of the thicket of bushes and assemble a firearm from pieces that he removed from his clothing. The man waited at the edge for many minutes — then pulled the trigger, "Cornbread" said Finally, he said, the man quickly disassembled the weapon, and stuffed the pieces back in his clothing.
What "Cornbread" described before King was shot and what we both saw in the frozen, horrified moments after King was shot are almost mirror images, each from our own vantage point. And the proximity of the shooter, if that was indeed King's assassin, would answer a question that always bedeviled me — why had the bullet blast been so loud?
Perhaps the gunshot that to me sounded like an explosion didn't come from a flophouse a block away after all, but somewhere much closer — the tangle of trees and bushes just across the wide gully at the motel
. Authorities dismissed "Cornbread" as an old drunk — and as I said, they never spoke to me.
But the way I see it, I can give Cornbread's story what the official tale about James Earl Ray lacks: corroboration.
And maybe finally, so many years after the killing of Martin Luther King Jr., we can get to the real nitty-gritty of how he died.
Earl Caldwell was a New York Times reporter and a New York Daily News columnist. His work covering the Black Panthers was at the heart of a Supreme Court case that helped define the rights of reporters.
"A lot of times, you do not understand the significance of what you see. But when something truly important happens, those pictures do not fade. They stick in the mind."