OPED: The tense months before the assassination of MLK

Ron Grossman
Tribune News Service

Through the months preceding his assassination on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was haunted by a sense of impending death. He shared that premonition with his aide Andrew Young, who was with King when a fatal bullet struck, 50 years ago.

"He talked about death all the time," Young told Tavis Smiley, author of "Death of A King."

For his 2014 book, Smiley asked those who had marched alongside King what they recalled of his mood in 1968. The comedian and activist Dick Gregory reported King, with tears in his eyes, said he was certain to be killed.

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King had faced death threats since the 1950s, when he emerged as the acknowledged leader of the civil rights movement. But in 1968, the threats reached a crescendo.

In March, the announcement that King would address the Human Relations Council of Grosse Pointe, Mich., an affluent Detroit suburb, produced a rash of threats. To protect King, the police chief sat on his lap in the car carrying King to the high school where he spoke.

Might such incidents have set King to worrying that he wouldn't live to see the results of the anti-poverty campaign he was struggling to organize?

On March 3, he preached a sermon titled "Unfulfilled Dreams" at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, which he pastored. Referencing the Old Testament, and noting that King David hadn't seen his dream of a Jerusalem temple realized, he preached: "Life is a continual story of shattered dreams."

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King's "Unfulfilled Dreams" sermon was a callback to his 1963 March on Washington, where he had delivered his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech that inspired legislation aimed at Jim Crow, the systematic discrimination suffered by blacks in the South. But having concluded that political equality was meaningless without a measure of economic equality, on Dec. 4, 1967, King announced he would lead a new march on Washington in the spring of the following year.

Demonstrators for the "Poor People's Campaign" would set up a tenant farmer's shack in front of one of the buildings of the Smithsonian Institution, a group of museums commemorating America's achievements.

All the while, he was being implored to come to Memphis, Tenn., where the city's sanitation workers had gone on strike on Feb. 12. The mayor refused to recognize their union, and demonstrators were gassed.

King was exhausted. His days were a blur of listening to the personal stories of poverty from across the South — one mother said her children couldn't go to school because they had no shoes — and rushing off to big-city fundraisers, so his staff could be paid.

But by March 17, he couldn't deny the strikers' pleas and said he'd be there. The next day, his mood was lifted by the crowd of 25,000 that greeted him in Memphis' Mason Temple.

"You are reminding not only Memphis but this nation that it is a crime for people to live in this nation and receive starvation wages," he told them. "What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't have enough money to buy a hamburger?"

He returned to Memphis on April 3, only to be served with a court order banning his planned demonstration. His flight had been delayed by a bomb scare, and there was a torrential downpour.

The next day, as his lawyers prepared for a court fight, King took it easy at the Lorraine Motel. About 6 p.m. he stepped out on a balcony. From a nearby rooming house, James Earl Ray, an escaped convict, fired a single shot.

"We always knew this could happen," said Coretta Scott King after she was told her husband was dead.

Five days later, enormous crowds lined the route of King's funeral procession through the streets of Atlanta.

His casket was carried on a farm cart pulled by two mules.