A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
It's April 4. I've been in Memphis for several days now, on assignment with the Community relations Service of the U.S. Department of Justice. The reason: racial tension swirling around the sanitation workers; strike, mass marches, scattered violence.
And, of course, the presence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., invited by local ministers.
I have been staying at the Lorraine Motel, room 308.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is registered in room 306.
In my work in racial reconciliation since 1960, I have always wanted to be at the nerve center of the movement, and I generally have stayed in the black community, in private homes or black-owned facilities.
So it is not unusual that I am here -- and the other federal civil rights officials I know to be in town are staying at the "white hotels" downtown.
I came to Memphis because I thought I saw an old-style, i.e., early 1960's southern movement developing. I had been with Dr. King as a student, helper and later government official in Atlanta often, in Albany in 1962, in Selma in 1965, in Chicago in 1966.
Memphis looked like a return to the early approach that had won desegregation victories for Dr. King and tens of thousands of unremembered colleagues and students in hundreds of cities throughout the South.
As head of evaluation for the Community Relations Service, I wanted to be here to see how our agency would cope in a return to the mass movement approach in which I had grown up as a participant and student.
My boss, Assistant Attorney General Roger Wilkins, wasn't sure I should go. But he trusted my judgment -- and understood my wish to be near the center of what looked like a regenerating social movement.
Yesterday and today have rekindled the old feeling -- mass meetings, sometimes staff visits to law enforcement and media, sitting in on movement strategy sessions, keeping Washington selectively posted.
A booming thunder and lightening storm crackled over the church in Memphis last night, punctuating Dr. King's sermon to a mass meeting. He placed the sanitation workers' strike in historical context: the flight out of Egypt, the Reformation, the American Revolution. You are more than a garbage worker in Memphis, he said. You are part of a great historical movement.
"We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now because I've been to the mountaintop. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.
"But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. He's allowed me to go up to the mountain, 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. So I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried.. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
Andy Young and I talked briefly at the front of the church right afterwards. "I've never heard him speak like that," he said. "I've never heard him be so pessimistic."
Later that night I remember a last glimpse I caught outside a union office where we had gone for a late-night strategy session. Dr. King was sitting in a car, briefly alone, waiting for a ride back to the Lorraine. He was looking off into the night, seemingly detached and pensive.
Dr. King spent today in court and a round of meetings, sometimes with supporters, but more intensely with factions, particularly youth, calling for more militant action. He spent a lot of time reconciling.
I have been on a round of meetings today, like yesterday. I got back in my room just in time for the six o'clock local news.
At 6:03 p.m., just after the lead story on today's court proceedings, I was startled by a loud report. It sounded like someone had tossed a cherry bomb in the small courtyard outside our rooms.
I ran out to the balcony and was horrified to see Dr. King stretched on the landing 10 feet to my right.
Kneeling at his side, I saw that a gaping neck wound already had yielded a pool of blood, and had stopped bleeding. His eyes closed slowly. He did not move. I did not hear him speak.
I rushed back to my room in a futile effort to help, bringing back towels to put under his head, and a blanket. I tried to make him comfortable. Several of us joined the ambulance crew to help carry his stretcher down the balcony stairs.
I think he died instantly. He was officially pronounced dead at the hospital an hour later.
The courtyard swarmed.. Many uniforms, absent until now, appeared. Most of them were from the adjacent fire station, I think.
Within minutes, still clutched by grief and disbelief, I was extraordinarily fortunate to get one one of the two existing motel phone lines to call Washington -- twice. Eve Wilkins was the first in Washington to hear; Roger wasn't home yet.
So I called Attorney General Ramsey Clark and gave him the appalling news.
"How bad is it?" he asked.
"Pretty bad, I think" was about all I could muster.
We talked of further logistics for keeping in touch, and the attorney general called the White House before the media did.
Then the physical feeling of shock and fear hit. I sat on my bed and shivered as I talked to reporters, but that, too, passed quickly. I felt the need to get out in the community and to see my friends on Dr. King's staff.
The community was erupting. I was taken to police headquarters for questioning and saw many of my friends there.
Fate or God put me with Andy Young in an ante-room at the police station, and our conversation started to move me from helping. duty and fear to grieving and reconstruction. We needed it; we were both pastors then.
Fate or God also had given me eight years of knowing Martin Luther King, Jr. His life -- and his death -- changed my life. He taught me that "conflict resolution," a laudable goal on the surface, does not truly occur without struggle refined in love and that justice is not fulfilled without reconciliation.
I am unremittingly grieved at his death. I am joyfully grateful for his gift of life.
James Laue died in 1993 at age 56 soon after he wrote this, when he was a professor at the George Mason University. He helped start the U. S. Institute for Peace.