Early in the evening on April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, a single bullet felled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the 39-year-old leader of America’s long-simmering civil-rights struggle. Known for his advocacy of nonviolent resistance to racial injustice, King was instrumental in rolling back national laws dictating segregation and discrimination; and in 1964, he became the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
King, who had come to the city to support a sanitation workers’ strike, was under significant stress, both from aggressive government surveillance and from fellow civil-rights leaders at odds about what a national agenda should look like—and how best to pursue it. High on Dr. King’s list: spotlighting the plight of America’s poor.
One of the people with King the day he was killed was a 26-year-old rising figure in the movement named Jesse Jackson, Jr. In the last 50 years, he himself has become a national civil-rights icon, who has worked tirelessly to topple the vestiges of racism and inequality in America and across the globe. In a wide-ranging interview with HISTORY, Rev. Jackson offered his recollections on the assassination, its tumultuous aftermath throughout 1968—and how the movement struggled to push forward with King’s dream of racial and economic equality.
HISTORY: Dr. King’s assassination came in the midst of preparation for the Poor People’s Campaign, a massive demonstration to highlight the issue of poverty in America. What were the internal arguments within his organization, the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), around this planning?
Jesse Jackson: We were trying to think strategically about how to gain traction. And so we had the staff meeting in January with whites from Appalachia and the Smoky Mountains, Native Americans from the reservations, blacks from the deep south, Latinos from south of this country, Chavez’s group, some Jewish allies from New York led by [activist] Al Lowenstein, and labor. [The discussion was] on how to begin to go city by city and come by bus, by train, by plane—[to] come to Washington and set up Resurrection City, a poor people’s camp between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
And so that was a thing. But then suppose the government turns its back and ignored us? So that became a point of tension about strategy—not about the rightness of the cause. So, finally we said, well, suppose…we took a company like GM, which was the biggest company in America at that time, and took a line of cars and boycotted them until the president of GM would convene other corporate leaders and say, “Let’s address poverty.”
There was vigorous debate about how to gain traction to make it come alive, because there was a lot of focus on ending the war, but not so much on ending poverty. And the other thing we found out, of course, by traveling across the south: Most poor people were not black, but white, female and young. Whether white, brown or black, hunger hurts. Trying to build a massive tent, a massive poor-people’s campaign across lines of race, religion and gender was also part of our task.
Dr. King’s decision to go to Tennessee then was a logical outgrowth of that work. Can you tell me what the mood was like in Memphis around the sanitation workers’ strike?
As we were planning a war on poverty, to secure a job with income for every American, two garbage men were killed February 1st in Memphis. We felt that the sanitation workers strike epitomized our point of working poor people. These guys who worked every day—killed on the job. Couldn’t get collective bargaining rights. They were our point about working poor people are not lazy. They work hard every day.
Dr. King was also concerned about ending the war in Vietnam. And to be against the war was like, he was being called treasonous and consorting with a foreign power. The government was attacking him. [F.B.I. Director J. Edgar] Hoover called him a “damn liar.” Said he was one of the most wanted men in America if a crisis broke out. So King was under severe pressure. His argument was too much blood is being spilled on killing abroad and not healing at home. And that was the real point of tension. So when he was killed, that whole question of poverty and war just exploded.
And how were you yourself feeling in Memphis at that time, both around the strike and your mood in general on the eve of his assassination?
Well the unease was that we were organizing ministers to use economic leverage to try to get the corporations to challenge the mayor to recognize sanitation workers. We were challenging students to get involved in it and remain nonviolent and disciplined, and trying to get these workers their collective-bargaining rights that would apply to workers across the country.
And then he was killed so suddenly, so dramatically, six o’clock in the afternoon on a cold April day. April 4th, 1968.
Tell me more about that. You were at the motel?
I was coming across the courtyard. We had been practicing some songs that night, some freedom songs, and we were supposed to leave around 5. It was around 6. He said, “Jesse, you’re an hour late.” I said, “Doc, you an hour late.” I said, “We’ve been waiting for you.” He said, “You don’t even have on a shirt and tie, and we going to Reverend Kyles’ home for dinner.” I said, “Dr. King, the prerequisite for eating is an appetite—not a tie.” He said, “You’re crazy.” We laughed. He looked down [over the balcony, into the parking lot] at Ben Branch, who we had heard play “Precious Lord” on the saxophone two weeks before in Chicago. He said, ”Please do my favorite song tonight,” and he raised his head and…pow. Bullet hit him right in the neck. We heard someone say, “Get low. Get low. Get …”
So we ran for the steps to go up because we thought if it had been an automatic weapon, it would get several of us at the same time, but that was not the case. The next thing was Andy [Young] and Reverend Kyles and them pointing over toward where the bullet had come from and saying to the police with their guns drawn, “The bullet came from that way.” Dr. King was lying in the meantime, with his foot on the railing. He had been knocked against the wall. And then Mr. [Ernest] Withers the photographer, scooped up a couple drops of blood. It was an eerie scene.
Reverend [Ralph] Abernathy said, “Get back. Get back. My friend Martin…Martin, you can’t leave me. You can’t leave us now.” I got to wiping my hands off and went next door to my room, which was next to his room and called Mrs. King. She was in the bed reading. I said, “Mrs. King, Dr. King I think has been shot, I think in the shoulder, but you should come here.” I really couldn’t say what I saw. It was like too much to say. And she said, “I’ll come immediately.” And no doubt, the press called her within the next 10 minutes and so she found out he was dead.
And then all hell broke loose for a while. We had to figure out what were the best strategic ways to fulfill his dream.
And we had to make a decision. Should we bow down and stop fighting? Should we adjust? Or should we fight back? We were determined we would not let one bullet kill the movement. We kept fighting in his honor, kept fighting back to increase voter registration, to build multiracial coalitions, to fight poverty and to fight to end of the war in Vietnam.
Often, when people listen to King’s ‘Mountaintop’ speech now, it sounds prophetic. How aware was Dr. King of his own mortality? Did he ever talk about that?
We knew that the threats against him were intense, after Hoover had convinced the attorney general to allow the FBI to tap Dr. King’s phone at home and his office phone and tap hotel-room phones, pay hotel workers to see if there was semen on the sheets. They tried to disrupt and discredit, destroy him in any way that they could to break his spirit. But they were not successful at it.
So, we knew the government was involved in the attempt to stop him. They thought his fight against the war in Vietnam was against national interest. So it seems to me that when he said to us [that his flight into Memphis the day before had been delayed because of a bomb threat directed at him], we thought that was what he was referring to [in his “Mountaintop” speech] later that night when he said, “I am not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” He was referring to what had happened in Atlanta [at the airport]—not what may happen the next day—but what had happened just the day before.
So after the incident on the plane, with the bomb threat that seemed to be aimed at him, what was Dr. King’s mood?
You never know what a leader is internalizing. We knew that Saturday, before we went to Memphis, he said he had been in the room three days with his wife, Coretta, and Andy and his wife Jean and Reverend Abernathy and his wife, Juanita. Dr. King had a migraine headache for three days. He was under such severe attack, he had to really wrestle with the idea that maybe he should consider just quitting. Maybe he had done as much as he could do in 13 years, given what happened in Montgomery and Birmingham and Selma. And Andy said, “Doc, don’t talk that way.” He said, “Andy, don’t say peace, peace. There is no peace. Maybe I should go back and become president of Morehouse College and do some writing or some traveling, some speaking.”
He said, “But I can’t stop because people like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who never gave up, wouldn’t understand. So I can’t turn around.”
He said, “You know, we got to go on to Memphis. We cannot leave those sanitation workers stranded. They have a right to watch their children graduate from high school and college. They have the same human rights that other people have. We’re going on to Memphis. Then we’re going to Washington, if necessary, and tie up traffic and go to jail. We’re going to force this Congress to shift from killing abroad to healing at home.”
What was your reaction to the civil unrest that developed after Dr. King’s assassination?
It was understandable. I mean, those who were rioting were acting very American. They’re trying to solve their conflict with violence, except they were burning…their own neighborhoods. And of course you had [Chicago Mayor Richard] Daley saying, “Shoot to kill.” But when the smoke cleared, our neighborhoods had been burned up, [and] nothing really changed. Because we didn’t have the strength at that point to fight back. We lived and learned it was more effective to use our political power. But even today, 50 years later, poverty has expanded. Violence has increased. Wars have increased.
What’s your most vivid memory about Dr. King’s burial, about the funeral?
When we went back to Memphis with Mrs. King, I remember that march that she led in Memphis. I remember that part of it. I remember so many people we could not move. We chose to use a mule train as a symbol of his identifying with the poorest people, the rural America and the farmers. The stirring words of Dr. [Benjamin] Mays, saying he wished it had been him instead. The singing of the song at Ebenezer Church, “If I Could Help Somebody.” There were moments that kind of stand out.
But what I mostly saw was people who underestimated his value on April the 3rd, and on April 5th became new people. And some who became alive who never went back. Like a kind of coefficient of expansion, they swole up, they left their fears behind, and they never stopped fighting.
And yet obviously the Poor People’s Campaign did not turn out the way you had hoped?
Well…we were in the camp, June 5th, trying to grasp the fact the White House was ignoring us. Congress had dismissed us. Dr. King was dead. It was raining every day, and then Robert Kennedy was killed June 5th. Our hearts fell out. We had lost two champions in two months. Seemingly with no place to go, so we had to hope against hope and move on, because it seemed all the pillars had been snatched from under us.
There was obviously a void left by the assassination of Dr. King. What was your feeling in the movement itself around who the next logical leader was—or were people not concerned about that?
I think it was unfair to try to make Dr. Abernathy Dr King. Dr. Abernathy did a good job, but the real deal was it seemed to me, that because we turned our anguish into [voter] registration, we began to elect mayors in Newark and L.A. and Detroit. We began to elect for the first time legislators and congressman. We began to use political power in ways we had never used it before. And until the Voting Rights Act was undercut by the [Supreme] Court in 2013, we saw substantial progress politically.
Looking back, would you define 1968 as a year, as a moment of transformation?
Well, when Dr. King was killed, Robert Kennedy killed, despair set in. And many people withdrew from fighting, and all of us withdrew into our homes. So, you had the explosion of the convention in ’68 in Chicago. There was no one to direct that energy in a positive direction. And so there were many injured and some killed in that struggle. And we ended up electing Nixon by 500,000 votes because he was able to turn our pain into political power. It worked against us. We fought against our own interest. But when we march and we fight and are willing to die, there’s power in martyrdom. There’s not power in throwing rocks and bricks. There’s power in love, not power in hate. We must go forth by hoping and healing—not backward by hate and hurt. It’s a tug of war for the soul of America. We must hold on for hope until the morning comes.
What was the greatest lesson you learned from Dr. King that allowed you to continue in that moment of despair?
Deep water does not drown you. You drown when you stop kicking. You can’t give up. Even when it’s dark, you must always know that the light is upon us. And we say in scripture, “though you slay me, ye will I trust you.” We will not give up our trust in God and our confidence in our movement just because it was dark.
Looking back, what would your advice be to the young people today who are challenging gun violence and trying to make their voices heard?
Well, particularly coming out of Parkland in Florida, and Black Lives Matter, they’ve turned a negative into a positive by having a massive national demonstration. What Dr. King bequeathed to this generation, we did not have 50 years ago really, was the right to vote. All the 17-year-olds in high school, there are 4 million high school seniors eligible to register and vote this spring for this fall’s elections—750,000 high school seniors in Florida alone if they tie in their protests with registration, they can begin to target people in the pockets of the gun lobbyists. All college students can vote where they attend college as opposed to going home to vote. Four million African Americans in the south are unregistered. Two and half million who are registered, but we did not vote. See, we have leverage, political power we didn’t have 50 years ago.
What would you say is Dr. King’s legacy today?
You know when we speak of global peace, that’s a part of Dr. King’s legacy, taking our movement out of the ghettos and barrios and into the global area. The second is building multiracial [coalitions]. I look at those youth marching today from around the nation, they are red, yellow, brown, black and white. That’s the King tradition. He lives in the protests of today. And when we march nonviolently and in great numbers, we always win.
Yohuru R. Williams is an American academic, author and activist. He serves as professor of history and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas, and he is the author and co-author of many books on the civil-rights movement, including In Search Of The Black Panther Party: New Perspectives On A Revolutionary Movement.
History Reads features the work of prominent authors and historians.