The triumphs of the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington with its stirring “I Have a Dream” speech, the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts and the winning of the Nobel Peace Prize were all behind Martin Luther King Jr. when he began the last and perhaps loneliest year of his life in January 1968. Now black-power militants and even some of his closest advisers were rejecting King’s philosophy of nonviolence. Many white supporters of the civil rights movement had redirected their enthusiasm–and their dollars–to opposing the war in Vietnam. Other whites chastised King for speaking out against the war. Constant travel to rally support for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), along with his frequent affairs on the road, strained King’s marriage. Premonitions of death stalked him. Meanwhile, the FBI stepped up its harassment with wiretaps and dirty tricks. Determined to revitalize his mission and himself, King hoped he could achieve both by leading a multiracial crusade against poverty. He called it the Poor People’s Campaign, and although his staff had deep reservations about the idea, he spent what would be his last months planning a new march on Washington. The turbulence of King’s final days comes vividly to life in Time’s exclusive excerpts from At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68, the final volume of Pulitzer prizewinner Taylor Branch’s three-part history of the civil rights movement and its most charismatic leader. In this portrait of King as a man under siege, his passion and his rhetoric reach new levels of grace.
DISCONTENT IN BOTH HIS HOUSES
King spent the early weeks of the new year flying around the country trying to drum up support for his poverty campaign but he found one of his toughest audiences back home in Atlanta
WITH HIS AIDE ANDREW YOUNG, KING TOOK A midnight flight through Dallas and reached home early on Jan. 15. They arrived late and exhausted for King’s morning presentation at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he was the pastor. Some 60 members of the SCLC staff were gathered from scattered posts with their travel possessions, ready to disperse straight from Atlanta to recruiting assignments for the poverty campaign. SCLC executive director William Rutherford’s summons had described a mandatory workshop of crisp final instructions–“it is imperative”–but King labored more broadly to overcome festering doubt and confusion about why they must go to Washington. He thanked his father Daddy King and others for fill-in speeches to cover his tardiness. He made a faltering joke about the tepid response of friends with their coats still on–“they act like it’s cold in my church”–and betrayed rare unease in a defensive speech.
“Riots just don’t pay off,” said King. He pronounced them an objective failure beyond morals or faith. “For if we say that power is the ability to effect change, or the ability to achieve purpose,” he said, “then it is not powerful to engage in an act that does not do that–no matter how loud you are, and no matter how much you burn.” Likewise, he exhorted the staff to combat the “romantic illusion” of guerrilla warfare in the style of Che Guevara. No “black” version of the Cuban revolution could succeed without widespread political sympathy, he asserted, and only a handful of the black minority itself favored insurrection. King extolled the discipline of civil disobedience instead, which he defined not as a right but a personal homage to untapped democratic energy. The staff must “bring to bear all of the power of nonviolence on the economic problem,” he urged, even though nothing in the Constitution promised a roof or a meal. “I say all of these things because I want us to know the hardness of the task,” King concluded, breaking off with his most basic plea: “We must not be intimidated by those who are laughing at nonviolence now.”
By tradition, workshops closed Monday night on a plenary round of music. “Talk about Peter, talk about Paul!” they sang in jubilant harmony, stomping their feet ahead of claps on the back beat. “Talk about Doctor King, you can talk about ’em all! Long as I know I’m gonna get my freedom, it’s all right, whoa, it’s all right!” A shout from Andrew Young blocked King at the door–“Don’t let him out of here!”–and hands pulled him into a sudden chorus of Happy Birthday. King wore a sheepish, captured look, recorded by one home-movie camera, when pioneer television host Xernona Clayton came forward to toast his turning 39.
His affairs had been an open secret for years, but two weeks after his birthday, King confessed one of them to his wife Coretta.
As a newcomer, Rutherford stood at the periphery of SCLC’s most private drama. He saw the swirling, teasing flirtations of its inner circle, and he discouraged prurient speculation about the link between Coretta’s regal suffering and King’s pursuits elsewhere. Rutherford could only guess about what he called a “double life,” marveling at burdens King must carry beyond the superhuman pressures and expectations of the movement. King’s formidable armor wore down in midlife, draining assurance from his glib mantra as a young scholar that many great men of religion had been obsessed with sex–St. Augustine, St. Paul, Martin Luther, Kierkegaard, Tillich–and his self-reproach spilled over when Coretta underwent surgery for an abdominal tumor on Jan. 24. He disclosed to her the one mistress who meant most to him since 1963–with intensity almost like a second family even though she lived in Los Angeles–a married alumna of Fisk, of dignified bearing like Coretta, but different. The result was painful disaster. On hearing the news, Juanita Abernathy, SCLC co-founder Ralph Abernathy’s wife, exploded with the fury of a trusted second that King had picked Coretta’s most vulnerable moment, just as she recovered from her hysterectomy, to ambush her sanctuary of willful, silent discretion. If he was truly desperate to be honest, she said, King should purge himself privately to God or a psychiatrist. Ralph Abernathy grew so alarmed about King’s confession that he canvassed the regular mistresses for hidden fits of jealousy or romantic blackmail, but he found no conventional clues to explain the rash new fatalism in King.
A FORESHADOWING OF MARTYRDOM
Assassination threats were constant, and King had always been haunted by premonitions of a premature death, but now they seemed to intensify
KING PREACHED “THE DRUM MAJOR INSTINCT” AT Ebenezer that Sunday, Feb. 4. He freely adapted a sermon published under that title during his seminary years by evangelist J. Wallace Hamilton, based on the biblical story of two disciples who beseech Jesus for the most prominent eternal seats in heaven. Their desire springs from a universal impulse for distinction, said King–“this quest for recognition … this drum major instinct.” An extreme drum major “ends by trying to push others down to push himself up,” he warned, driving racism in culture and arrogance in nations. Yet Jesus in the Bible account does not rebuke James and John for their ambition itself, but teaches instead that true reward follows humble service. Here King’s message turned. “And the great issue of life,” he declared, “is to harness the drum major instinct.” He sketched the biography of supreme Christian sacrifice with clear echoes of his own turmoil, noting that the “tide of public opinion turned” against Jesus when he was still young. “They said he was an agitator,” said King. “He practiced civil disobedience. He broke injunctions.” Jesus was betrayed by friends, cursed, killed and buried penniless in a borrowed tomb–but now after 19 centuries “stands as the most influential figure that ever entered human history.” For all the worldly gloss about a “lord of lords,” King found nothing royal about Jesus: “He just went around serving.”
This was hardly the first time King flirted with martyrdom in a speech. One of the first profiles written about him during the bus boycott noted a “conspicuous thread of thanatopsis” in his private conversation as well. What emerged this Sunday was a brooding reverie on external and internal burdens from the drum major instinct. “And every now and then I think about my own death,” he told his congregation. He gave fitful instructions for his own funeral service–“tell them not to talk too long”–hoping someone would mention “that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others.” The eulogist should omit all his honors and attainments simply to testify perhaps that King tried to love enemies, comfort prisoners, “be right on the war question,” and feed the hungry. “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major,” he cried, “say that I was a drum for justice! Say that I was a drum major for peace–I was a drum major for righteousness–and all of the other shallow things will not matter.” In thunderclap rhythm, with his distinctive voice blending ecstasy and despair, King finished the oration soon to become famous by the disembodied recording played at his funeral.
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE LAST DREAM
Over the opposition of his staff, King reached out to leaders of other ethnic groups to enlist them in the Poor People’s Campaign
KING MET WITH 78 “NONBLACK” MINORITY LEADERS ON Thursday, March 14, for an anxious summit closed to reporters. Mostly unknown to each other, let alone to King, they ventured by invitation from across the U.S. to Paschal’s Motor Lodge in the heart of black Atlanta. Wallace (Mad Bear) Anderson spoke for a poor Iroquois confederation of upstate New York. A deputy came from the bedside of Cesar Chavez, who had barely survived a 25-day fast in penance for violent lapses by striking California farmworkers. Tillie Walker and Rose Crow Flies High represented Plains tribes from North Dakota, while Dennis Banks led a delegation of Anishinabes. During introductions, King aide Bernard Lafayette whispered to King what he had gleaned about basic differences among Puerto Ricans as distinct from Mexicans (Chicanos), or the defining cause of the Assiniboine/Lakota leader Hank Adams, who spearheaded a drive for Northwestern salmon-fishing rights. Lafayette had checked repeatedly to make sure King wanted the hardscrabble white groups to be included, and the answer was always simple: “Are they poor?” The motor lodge’s meeting room was dotted with coal miners, some of whom braved fierce criticism from Appalachian rivals, and one white participant, Peggy Terry, admitted being raised in a Kentucky Klan family. After moving to Montgomery during the bus boycott, she had gone once on a lark to see “that smart aleck nigger come out of jail,” and the actual sight of King buffeted by a mob had angered her. Now Terry kept a few black friends in the Jobs Or Income Now group from uptown Chicago’s poor white district, and she wowed movement crowds by asking where else a hillbilly housewife could trade ideas or jail cells with a Nobel prizewinner.
Black sanitation workers in Memphis were in the 10th day of a strike when supporters, including SCLC member James Lawson, staged a march. After police charged the crowd with truncheons and cans of Mace, Lawson appealed for King to come.
IT TOOK A FLYING WEDGE OF PREACHERS AND SANITATION WORKERS to guide King’s party into the cavernous Mason Temple through crowded aisles and a pulsing crescendo of cheers. Against all fire codes, some spectators climbed high into rafters from which was suspended a giant white banner with a Bible quote from Zechariah: NOT BY MIGHT, NOR BY POWER, SAITH THE LORD OF HOSTS, BUT BY MY SPIRIT. The platform below teemed with dignitaries plus three stately new garbage cans filled with donations. When King in his blue suit reached the bank of microphones, the noise receded no lower than a constant hum, and applause erupted again each time he paid tribute to their unity and purpose. “You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor,” he said.
They clapped when he asked if they knew most poor people worked every day, and even cheered most sentences of his exegesis on the parable of Lazarus. “You are here to demand that Memphis will see the poor,” King cried. Energy in the hall brimmed so close to the surface that he backed off to summarize the previous decade. “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality,” he resumed. There was no need to build or persuade by the rules of oratory, as a feeder line in rhythm easily rekindled the crowd. “We are tired,” said King. “We are tired of being at the bottom. [“Yes!”] We are tired … We are tired of our men being emasculated so that our wives and our daughters have to go out and work in the white lady’s kitchen.” He used old riffs and improvised new ones on staying together and the nature of power. “Power is the ability to achieve purpose,” said King, to applause. “Power is the ability to effect change … and I want you to stick it out so that you will be able to make Mayor Henry Loeb and others say ‘Yes’ even when they want to say ‘No.’” He paused through the next ovations with a quizzical look.
“Now you know what?” he asked. “You may have to escalate the struggle a bit.” His conversational tone for once hushed the crowd. “If they keep refusing, and they will not recognize the union,” said King, “I tell you what you ought to do. And you are together here enough to do it. In a few days you ought to get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.”
This time cheers rose into sustained, foot-stomping bedlam, which drowned out further words, and King stepped back into the embrace of colleagues already in furious consultation. With Lawson, Andrew Young passed King a note that perhaps he could swing back through Memphis. Temporarily at least, the rejuvenating clamor made the garbage strike seem the heart of a poverty movement instead of a foolish diversion from the march planned for Washington.
Ten days later, King returned to Memphis to participate in another march, but what unfolded not only set back the nonviolence campaign but also set him on the path to his tragic fate.
As the march swung right into main street for the last 10 blocks to City Hall, a surge pushed the front ranks into an uncomfortable speed, nearly a trot, jostled and patted from behind. Abernathy sensed an overly familiar, hostile edge in the cries of tribute–“We’re glad you came to Memphis”–not long before loud pops turned anxious heads to listen for gunshots. Crashes after the bangs signaled instead the unmistakable sound of storefront windows being smashed along Beale and Main streets. Moans went up that something was wrong. Young marauders ran through overmatched marshals to attack storefronts ahead of the march–Shainberg’s department store, York Arms Company, Perel and Lowenstein’s–sometimes needing multiple blows to break the heavy plate glass. A helicopter bulletin at 11:24 a.m. reported 15 young people destroying a parked car a few hundred yards to the side, and marshals relayed shouted commands to halt the line of march.
Sensing the growing emergency, assistant police chief Henry Lux, marching within 20 feet of King, lent his bullhorn to James Lawson. “This is Reverend Lawson speaking!” shouted the voice above the chaos. “I want everybody who’s in the march, in the movement, to turn around and go back to the church.” Lawson joined a heated debate in the middle of Main Street, surrounded by pleas for calm as well as battle cries of “Black Power!” and “Burn it down, baby!” King was torn between his pledge to shun violence and his promise never to abandon the movement faithful. Most others yelled to evacuate him since he presented a target of opportunity, and King aide Bernard Lee pulled King and Abernathy among swirling followers down McCall Avenue toward the Mississippi River. Lee bulled and dodged interference until he flagged down two astonished women in a Pontiac, then a police motorcycle. Lieut. M.E. Nichols, appraising the danger by radio, avoided roadblocks already sealing off routes to the Lorraine Motel (the black-owned motel where the King entourage was staying) and escorted the Pontiac under siren to the uptown Rivermont Holiday Inn.
The FBI, which had kept King under close surveillance, wiretapped him and even inserted an undercover agent into the SCLC hierarchy, moved quickly to exploit the Memphis debacle.
FEDERAL OFFICIALS DISSEMINATED TO “COOPERATIVE NEWS sources” a blind memorandum stating that the “result of King’s famous espousal of nonviolence was vandalism, looting and riot.” The lapse from nonviolent discipline in Memphis freed the FBI from the inhibitions that the public’s respect for King’s conduct if not his message had imposed, and opened the way for character assassination on all fronts. By the next day, March 29, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover approved a second effort “to publicize hypocrisy on the part of Martin Luther King.” The document whiplashed him as cowardly and violent, servile and uppity. “Like Judas leading lambs to slaughter,” Hoover confidentially advised news contacts, “King led the marchers to violence, and when the violence broke out, King disappeared.” A gossipy addition highlighted the place of refuge. “The fine Hotel Lorraine in Memphis is owned and patronized exclusively by Negroes,” stated the propaganda sheet, but King had chosen instead “the plush Holiday Inn Motel, white owned, operated and almost exclusively white patronized.” By April 2, Hoover formally requested permission to reinstall wiretaps at SCLC. Two days later, the Mississippi FBI office sent headquarters a two-pronged counterintelligence program, or COINTELPRO, proposal, first, to breed confusion and resentment on King’s poverty tours by spreading false information about whether he or surrogates would appear at scheduled rallies, and second, to undermine his image by distributing leaflets skewering King as a fancy dresser who deserted his people. The combination would “discredit King and his aides with poor Negroes who he is seeking support from,” argued Mississippi, but the bureau would not have time to act on the plan.
INTO THE VALLEY OF DEATH
Back in Atlanta, an emergency meeting of SCLC leaders was convened to discuss the Memphis riot. Criticisms were hurled at King, and he was urged to abandon the sanitation strikers.
KING ABSORBED THE RAW SPEECHES MILDLY, AS WAS HIS custom, then rose from a wooden Sunday school table to argue that they all underestimated their problem. “We are in serious trouble,” he said. The Memphis riot had discredited nonviolent tenets at the heart of their movement. If they simply abandoned the garbage strike, a presumption of violence would follow them to the national stage with greatly magnified risk and opposition. Therefore, said King, he felt by no means committed to either Memphis or Washington–regardless of what he told the press–unless first convinced that they could restore the integrity of nonviolent protest. This was a staff decision, because he could not do it alone. “Memphis is the Washington campaign in miniature,” he said.
His appeal backfired by reopening dissent against the Washington campaign itself. Andrew Young warned that the whole plan might be moot for the year, anyway, as the tangled logistics could well push the start back into June, when the summer recess of Congress would deprive them of “Pharaoh” rulers to plague. Young proposed to make constructive use of delay, and questioned the enormous effort to assemble and maintain a novel protest army of polyglot poor people in Washington. He doubted King’s white attorney and closest confidant Stanley Levison’s analogy with the Bonus Marchers of 1932-34, whose suffering and rejection had kindled delayed support for New Deal initiatives, and King aide James Bevel renewed his attack on the entire calculation. “Aw, that’s just a bunch of bulls___,” he declared. “We don’t need to be hanging around Washington. We need to stop this war.” Bevel described Vietnam as a political sickness more deeply rooted than poverty, and his rhetoric bristled with street militancy poised ingeniously at the limit of nonviolence. Jesse Jackson, like Bevel, excelled in slashing vocabulary that suggested a competitive preacher’s “chops” better suited to the new moods than King’s ecumenical language. Jackson called Memphis too small and Washington too unformed.
This time King stood seething. “Ralph, give me my car keys,” he said quietly. Abernathy surrendered them with a stricken, quizzical look as King said they could go on without him. “He did something I’ve never heard him do before,” Levison confided afterward on his wiretapped phone. “He criticized three members of the staff with his eloquence. And believe me, that’s murder. And was very negative.” King said Young had given in to doubt, Bevel to brains, and Jackson to ambition. He said they had forgotten the simple truths of witness. He said the movement had made them, and now they were using the movement to promote themselves. He confronted Bevel, who had been a mentor to Jackson and Young, as a genius who flummoxed his own heart. “You don’t like to work on anything that isn’t your own idea,” said King. “Bevel, I think you owe me one.”
Abernathy, Jackson and Young rushed after King. “Doc, doc, don’t worry!” called Jackson in the stairwell. “Everything’s going to be all right.”
King whirled on a landing and pointed up to shout. “Jesse, everything’s not going to be all right!” he cried. “If things keep going the way they’re going now, it’s not SCLC but the whole country that’s in trouble. I’m not asking, ‘Support me.’ I don’t need this. But if you’re so interested in doing your own thing that you can’t do what this organization’s structured to do, if you want to carve out your own niche in society, go ahead. But for God’s sake, don’t bother me!” His fury echoed in the conference room.
Chagrined by King’s reprimand, the SCLC leaders agreed to return to Memphis, despite the mayor’s petitioning the federal court to ban the organization from a march planned for the following week. The evening before the case was to be argued, supporters held a rally, at which they expected King to speak.
TORNADO WARNINGS MADE KING FRET about his crowd, as ominous streaks of gray and purple crossed the sky from the west. Radio bulletins told of a seven o’clock twister that picked up and dumped a stretch of asphalt on cars near Star City, Ark., killing seven people, and the first squalls hit Memphis half an hour later in slanted sheets of rain. Phone calls from the Lorraine to Lawson in Mason Temple verified that the crowd indeed was thin–perhaps fewer than 2,000 in the huge hall that had packed seven times that many for King’s visit on March 18. He feared the sharp drop-off would invite belittling stories of a downward trend for him, along with the riot and new federal injunction. “Ralph,” said King, “I want you to go speak for me tonight.”
Murmurs of anticipation ran through the hall when Abernathy, Jackson and Young were sighted–only to hush when King’s absence registered. For Abernathy, a keen reader of crowds, the palpable disappointment was worse than he feared. He went to a vestibule telephone instead of the podium and marshaled enticements for King–mentioning news cameras, the big spray of microphones, and Lawson’s point that the movement seldom gathered so many people in the South. Most of all, Abernathy told King this was a core crowd of sanitation workers who had braved a night of hellfire to hear him, and they would feel cut off from a lifeline if he let them down. When King gave in, Abernathy pressed for assurance. “Don’t fool me now,” he said, and King promised to hurry.
His entrance caused an eerie bedlam of communion under shelter. Cheers from the floor echoed around the thousands of empty seats above, and the whole structure rattled from the pounding elements of wind, thunder and rain. King came smiling to the microphones about 9:30, just as the storms crested. He strung together several of his speech themes aimed toward the shared moment, beginning with a poetical tour of history. Then he meandered into another speech theme to recap the parable of the Good Samaritan. “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers,” he concluded, “what will happen to them? That’s the question … We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.”
Abruptly King swerved into a third oratorical run, retelling of his brush with death when a demented woman stabbed him at a Harlem bookstore in 1958–how a doctor told the New York Times that the blade would have severed his aorta if he so much as sneezed, and how a little girl wrote a simple letter of thanks that he did not sneeze. “I want to say that I am happy that I didn’t sneeze,” said King, “because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960 when students all over the South started sitting in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy …” His voice climbed again in rhythm and fervor, using survival as a melodramatic device to relive the civil rights movement. “If I had sneezed,” he cried near the end, “I wouldn’t have been down in Selma.”
Experienced preachers behind him felt fleeting anxiety that King might miss his landing, because he was in full passion on a peroration unsuited to close. The “sneeze” run always came earlier in his speeches, being informal and thin. King sputtered at the podium, then slipped a gear. “And they were telling me–now it doesn’t matter now,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter. I left Atlanta this morning …” He told briskly of the bomb scare on his plane and how the pilot had announced that threats to King had generated a precautionary overnight guard for the aircraft. “And then I got into Memphis.” He frowned. “And some began to say the threats–or talk about the threats–that were out, what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers. Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now.”
King paused. “Because I’ve been to the mountaintop,” he declared in a trembling voice. Cheers and applause erupted. Some people jerked involuntarily to their feet, and others rose slowly like a choir. “And I don’t mind,” he said, trailing off beneath the second and third waves of response. “Like anybody I would like to live–a long life–longevity has its place.” The whole building suddenly hushed, which let sounds of thunder and rain fall from the roof. “But I’m not concerned about that now,” said King. “I just want to do God’s will.” There was a subdued call of “Yes!” in the crowd. “And he’s allowed me to go up the mountain,” King cried, building intensity. “And I’ve looked over. And I have s-e-e-e-e-e-n, the promised land.” His voice searched a long peak over the word “seen,” then hesitated and landed with quick relief on “the promised land,” as though discovering a friend. He stared out over the microphones with brimming eyes and the trace of a smile. “And I may not get there with you,” he shouted, “but I want you to know, tonight [“Yes!”] that we as a people will get to the promised land!” He stared again over the claps and cries, while the preachers closed toward him from behind. “So I’m happy tonight!” rushed King. “I’m not worried about anything! I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” He broke off the quotation and stumbled sideways into a hug from Abernathy. The preachers helped him to a chair, some crying, and tumult washed through the Mason Temple.
On April 4, as hearings were held to determine whether SCLC could participate in the upcoming march, King and several other SCLC leaders waited at the Lorraine Motel for the decision.
AT FOUR O’CLOCK, AN ESCAPED CONVICT bought a pair of Bushnell binoculars just up Main Street at York Arms Company, one of the businesses whose windows were smashed on March 28. He drove back to finish setting up a surveillance post. The convict had driven from Atlanta, where the newspapers said King was leaving for a march in Memphis, arriving late the previous night. This day, reading front-page news that King was staying at the Lorraine, and perhaps hearing radio reports that specified Room 306, he had located and studied the motel until an hour ago, when he rented a room for $8.50 per week in Bessie Brewer’s flophouse next door to Fire Station Number 2. With the seven-power Bushnells, he could read room numbers on the motel doors 70 yards distant, and the same strength on his Redfield scope would make human figures seem only 30 ft. away. The scope was mounted on a .30-06 Remington Gamemaster, which was engineered so that its 150-grain slug would lose less than .01 inch in altitude and reach the motel balcony with 2,370 pounds of knockdown power–enough to drop a rhinoceros. However, the odd angle of an occluding building next door meant the convict could fire the long rifle only by leaning out his window. To avoid that, he must wait until he sighted his target from the room, then run with the rifle down the hallway to the common bathroom, find it unoccupied, and hope King stayed long enough on the balcony to get a clear shot from a rear window above the bathtub.
About five o’clock, when Andrew Young returned from his courtroom testimony to find a general bull session in visiting Kentucky state senator Georgia Davis Powers’ Room 201, King greeted him with playful fury by wrestling him to the floor between the two beds. Abernathy, SCLC member Hosea Williams, Bernard Lee and King’s brother A.D. King joined in a wild tickling punishment of Young for failure to keep “our Leader” informed all day, which turned into a free-for-all pillow fight, with King sometimes squaring off against A.D. as in childhood. Once the hysteria subsided, Young said he thought the hearing went pretty well. Chauncey Eskridge walked in from a lawyers’ conference with Judge Bailey Brown and said the judge would permit SCLC to lead Monday’s march under the restrictions King and Lawson desired: a prescribed route, no weapons and narrow ranks to give the marshals wide space on the flanks to keep the spectators away. This relief started a fresh buzz of determination for weekend preparations. They should all get ready for dinner at the home of Reverend Billy Kyles, a well-known Memphis minister, King said, and Officer Richmond, a Memphis policeman keeping King under surveillance, noted through binoculars at 5:40 his brisk walk with Abernathy upstairs to their Room 306.
While dressing, Abernathy disclosed sheepishly to King that he could not join him in Washington for the preliminary lobbying in the Poor People’s Campaign, because the new start date of April 29 conflicted with his long-scheduled spring revival at his West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta. King said this would never do. Abernathy’s congregation was a magnificent one already, he purred, claiming that he would have gone there himself if Daddy King had not invited him to Ebenezer, and surely the deacons would understand that Abernathy had to revive the soul of a whole nation instead. Abernathy weakened, but did not give in until King promised to help secure a substitute revival leader of stature. Upstairs, Hosea Williams loudly evicted the last of the Invaders (a gang accused of being agent provocateurs in the riot) from two rooms provided during negotiations, after discovering to his outrage that 15 of them had crammed inside to live on meals charged to the SCLC account. Downstairs, Jesse Jackson rehearsed a singing group from his Chicago-based program Operation Breadbasket, and bystanders crowded into the room to belt out extra hymns such as Yield Not to Temptation and I’m So Glad (Trouble Don’t Last Always).
Reverend Kyles left Jackson’s songfest and knocked at Room 306 to hurry King along. Abernathy played him for a sign of deliverance. “Why don’t you do my revival?” he asked Kyles, who adroitly dodged, saying he thought he was scheduled to preach in Columbus, Ohio. King chimed in to needle Kyles about the relative status of his invitations. “Anybody’d rather come to Atlanta than go to Columbus,” he said. He shifted tone to inquire how Memphis churches achieved such unity behind the sanitation workers, who were not members of the prestige congregations, but Abernathy reopened preachers’ banter on the subject of food, making clear his preference for soul food over fancier fare. “All right now Billy, I don’t want you fooling me,” he said, warning that if he went all the way to the Kyleses’ home for T-bone steaks or filet mignons, which he pronounced “FEEL-ay MEEN-yuns,” then, “you’re gonna flunk.”
“Now Billy,” said King, “if you’ve bought this big new house and can’t afford to feed us, I’m gonna tell everybody in the country.”
Kyles rejoined that there would be more soul food than King’s waistline needed.
“Your wife can’t cook, anyway,” King teased. “She’s too good-looking.” He fell into a chauvinist bromide about the value of plain wives, and Abernathy took up the flip side with remarks on the beauty of Gwen Kyles. He retreated to the bathroom with a flirtatious grin that he must splash on Aramis cologne just for her.
King walked ahead of Kyles to look over the handrail outside, down on a bustling scene in the parking lot. Police undercover agent Marrell McCullough (a mole in the entourage) parked almost directly below, returning with SCLC staff members James Orange and James Bevel from a shopping trip to buy overalls. Orange unfolded his massive frame from McCullough’s little blue Volkswagen, tussling with Bevel, and Andrew Young stepped up to rescue Bevel by shadow-boxing at a distance. King called down benignly from the floor above for Orange to be careful with preachers half his size. McCullough and Orange walked back to talk with two female college students who pulled in just behind them. Jesse Jackson emerged from the rehearsal room, which reminded King to extend his rapprochement. “Jesse, I want you to come to dinner with me,” he said.
Kyles, overhearing on his way down the balcony stairs, told King not to worry because Jackson already had secured his own invitation. Abernathy shouted from Room 306 for King to make sure Jackson did not try to bring his whole Breadbasket band, while Chauncey Eskridge was telling Jackson he should upgrade from turtleneck to necktie for dinner. Jackson called up to King: “Doc, you remember Ben Branch?” He said Breadbasket’s lead saxophonist and song leader was a native of Memphis.
“Oh, yes, he’s my man,” said King. “How are you, Ben?” Branch waved. King recalled his signature number from Chicago. “Ben, make sure you play Precious Lord, Take My Hand in the meeting tonight,” he called down. “Play it real pretty.”
“O.K., Doc, I will.”
Solomon Jones, the volunteer chauffeur, called up to bring coats for a chilly night. There was no reply. Time on the balcony had turned lethal, which left hanging the last words fixed on a gospel song of refuge. King stood still for once, and his sojourn on earth went blank.
This excerpt is copywritten and may not be reprinted without the express written consent of Taylor Branch.