Nightfall in Memphis


It was a few minutes before 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 4. The temperature in Memphis was in the mid-fifties, down from the seventies that morning. Despite the chill, King was not warmly dressed as he exited Room 306….

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated fifty years ago this month, his 1968 murder occurring as he stood on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel waiting to go to dinner. As described in Joseph Rosenbloom’s Redemption, a you-are-there account of King’s last thirty-one hours, the moments leading up to James Earl Ray’s fatal rifle-shot were a mixture of light banter and heavy irony. Rosenbloom describes King sharing joke with Jesse Jackson and watching the roughhousing of his bodyguards assembling in the motel parking lot to take him, in a limousine provided by a Memphis funeral home, to a private party. King was looking forward to a good southern meal, entertainment provided by the “Operation Breadbasket” orchestra and choir, its conductor Ben Branch also mingling in the parking lot below:

“Ben,” King said, “I want you to play ‘Precious Lord’ for me tonight.” It was one of King’s favorite gospel songs. He would have been aware of its origins as a melancholy lyric written in 1932 by Thomas Dorsey. The full title was “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” It was a plea for God’s help to cope with death….

“Sing it real pretty,” King said.

“I sure will, Doc,” Branch said….

As Rosenbloom’s title alludes, King faced the many death threats made against him with the determined belief, expressed even in a BBC interview aired the day he was killed, that “unmerited suffering is redemptive.” In The Heavens Might Crack, civil rights scholar Jason Sokol examines how America and the world responded to King’s assassination, some hoping to redeem King’s sacrifice through non-violent pressure for change but many, and not just militants in the nascent Black Panther Party, preparing for full-on battle. Sokol illustrates the latter group through Memphis factory employee Clarence Coe, sent home early on April 4 as the National Guard imposed curfew and put the city in lockdown:

Coe arrived at home and appraised his arsenal of firearms. He resolved to walk to the cemetery across the street, burn down a wooden bridge there and take control of a small hill. “That’s what I thought everybody else was going to do,” he explained. But Coe was in for a surprise. “When I found out they [blacks] weren’t going to do nothin’ … it took a lot out of me … I just expected to go to war … and I thought that would happen all over the world.”

Sokol documents how King’s death was greeted with good-riddance hostility by some factions of white America, and how over the last half-century even that hostility has evolved to canonization: “How so many Americans got from loathing to loving is less a tale of diminishing racism, and more about the ways King’s legacy has been sculpted and scrubbed.” This disheartening argument frames A More Beautiful and Terrible History, in which Jeanne Theoharis looks back upon the half-century since King’s death as an inverse ratio disaster — the more America “came to see and tell the story of the modern civil rights movement as one of progress and national redemption,” the less King’s avowed war against “the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism” mattered. Honored mostly by postage stamp tributes and commemorative sound-bites, King’s legacy and the larger civil rights movement were sanitized, defanged and repurposed as a progressive chapter in the national narrative:

This history as national progress naturalized the civil rights movement as an almost inevitable aspect of American democracy rather than as the outcome of Black organization and intrepid witness. It suggested racism derived from individual sin rather than from national structure—and that the strength of American values, rather than the staggering challenge of a portion of its citizens, led to its change. The movement had largely washed away the sins of the nation, and America’s race problem could be laid to rest with a statue in the Capitol.

Contributors to The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race certainly do not believe that America’s race problem is now lying dutifully in state. The passionate collection is edited by the novelist Jesmyn Ward, who concludes her introductory essay with the redemption prose of writer and activist James Baldwin:

If we do not dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by the slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!