More than a half century since Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, those who picked up his torch continue to fight for some of the same causes he was fighting for at the moment he was killed.
Experts note that one of the main campaigns he was working on at the time of his death remains unresolved. But, in typical fashion, he had several irons in the fire at that moment in 1968.
The week after King’s death, TIME’s story on the assassination framed King’s death in Memphis as an irony: “the conqueror of Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma” had died while participating in “a minor labor dispute,” referring to the Memphis sanitation-workers strike that had brought him to Tennessee. King had been invited to the city by pastor James Lawson, a Montgomery bus boycott veteran. There, 1,300 predominantly black workers had been striking for two months for fair wages and better working conditions. The strike was prompted by the death of two of their colleagues, who were crushed to death in the compactor of a garbage truck — the only place where they could wait out a rainstorm in a white neighborhood where residents were uneasy about African Americans hanging around where they lived.
Some of King’s closest advisers at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference shared the view that Memphis was merely a distraction from larger concerns.
At the time, he was supposed to be planning a larger demonstration to be held in Washington in a few months: the Poor People’s Campaign. The march had been in the works for months, since King in late 1967 called for thousands of Americans living in poverty to travel to the capital to demand economic equality. He was partly inspired by the so-called Bonus Army’s actions in 1932, when starving World War I veterans came to Washington to demand the payment of a bonus they’d been promised for their service. That march was a factor in the later passage of the GI Bill, according to Taylor Branch, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963.
The planning of such a grand event came at a troubled time for the movement King led, and the trouble only increased after King came out in opposition to the Vietnam War, most famously in an Apr. 4, 1967, speech at Riverside Church. “Money from big donors had dried up” before he came out against the war, and then his anti-war statements only exacerbated their money problem, says Trey Ellis, executive producer of the HBO Documentary King in the Wilderness, which focuses on this later period of the leader’s life. His anti-war statements cost him his alliance with President Lyndon B. Johnson, and thus many donors.
“The cost of doing business with Johnson was to, at a minimum stay silent about the escalating war in Vietnam, which is where a lot of resources were going,” says Clarence Lang, an expert on African American labor history and chair of African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas. “King was calling out the Johnson administration for declaring a ‘war on poverty,’ instituting these Great Society programs, [but] essentially starving them.”
King, however, saw the deep connection between his larger campaign for economic equality and what was going on in Memphis. It was in a Mar. 18 speech to the sanitation workers that he famously declared, “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?” That speech was so successful that he was invited back to march with the strikers on Mar. 28.
Violence broke out. A policeman fatally shot one 16-year-old African American teen and dozens were injured. He didn’t want to leave Memphis on that note.
“He had to come back a third time. He had to prove there could be a nonviolent march because he was blamed for the violence,” says Clayborne Carson, founding director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. “He knew that if he couldn’t control the violence in Memphis at a much smaller event, that this would undermine the Poor People’s Campaign, so he felt he had to come back and show that nonviolence could work.”
Yet violence was exactly how it ended, when James Earl Ray shot King on the second floor balcony of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel on April 4.
Historians say the Poor People’s Campaign essentially disintegrated after his death. Though the march on Washington did take place later that spring, it didn’t get as much attention as expected. TIME characterized the event as “motivated by disillusionment and despair.” Most of the ideas on the campaign’s platform, such as a guaranteed income, have never been realized. And while new leaders emerged — for example, Jesse Jackson became more visible in the movement after King’s assassination, in part because of his work on King’s late-in-life campaigns — it became clearer than ever that many considered King the glue that kept organizers united.
King’s death didn’t spell the end of every one of the projects he’d had underway. Memphis eventually cut a deal with the sanitation workers, and at least one big national policy that King had been pushing for appeared only to get passed because of his assassination, as an homage to the civil rights leader and a concession to a people left angry and sad by the killing. The Fair Housing Act, which banned formal discrimination in the rent and sale of housing, had pretty much been stalled in Congress; it passed just days after King’s death. “There’s a wave of riots in a lot of northern cities including Washington, D.C., [after his death] and the Fair Housing Act is seen as a possible way of preventing more,” says Philip A. Klinkner, professor of Government at Hamilton College and author of The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America. “It only passes because of these incredibly violent riots after the death of this apostle of nonviolence, so there’s a lot of irony laden in that.”
But, Klinker argues, aside from affirmative action in the ’70s, “there are no more major legislative victories for the movement.”
That means those who believed in the ideas King championed at the end of his life are still fighting. Modern activists have picked up the name of the Poor People’s Campaign, and parallels can be seen in everything from the Fight for $15 minimum-wage campaign to Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Peter Ling, a King biographer, has called the Poor People’s Campaign the civil rights leader’s “most relevant campaign” for today’s world.
“The stirrings of activism among young people, I think, are indications of what we have failed to accomplish back in the ’60s,” Clayborne Carson says. “I think today is about the first time in the last 50 years where you see young people beginning to confront these issues.”
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