An Urgent Invitation, A Tragic Outcome
An excerpt from Hampton Side's new book "Hellhound on His Trail."
Illustration by Brian Hubble
EDITOR'S NOTE: April 4, 1968, was a fateful day for mankind. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel altered the course of the civil rights movement and made an impact on Memphis that can still be felt today. But that day — that moment — was merely the horrifying culmination of a series of events (in Memphis and beyond) that brought Dr. King and James Earl Ray to the same city at the same time.
Following is an excerpt from Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin by former Memphis writer Hampton Sides, to be published this month by Doubleday.
Please note that the name Eric Galt was among several aliases used by James Earl Ray.
FEBRUARY 1, 1968, was a rainy day, the skies leaden and dull. On Colonial Street in East Memphis, the spindly dogwood branches clawed at the cold air. A loud orange sanitation truck, crammed full with the day's refuse, grumbled down the street, past the ranch-style houses, past the fake chalets and pseudo Tudors, where the prim yards of dormant grass were marred only by truant magnolia leaves, brown and lusterless, clattering in the wind.
At the wheel of the big truck was a man named Willie Crain, the crew chief. Two workers rode in the back, taking shelter in the maw of its compacting mechanism to escape the pecking rain. They were Robert Walker, twenty-nine, and Echol Cole, thirty-five, two men who were new to sanitation work, toiling at the bottom of the department's pay scale, still learning the ropes. They made less than a hundred dollars a week, and, because the city regarded them as "unclassified laborers," they had no benefits, no pension, no overtime, no grievance procedure, no insurance, no uniforms, and, especially noteworthy on this day, no raincoats.
The "tub-toters" of the Public Works Department were little better off than sharecroppers in the Delta, which is where they and their families originally hailed from. In some ways they still lived the lives of field hands; in effect, the plantation had moved to the city. They wore threadbare hand-me-downs left on the curbs by well-meaning families. They grew accustomed to homeowners who called them "boy." They mastered a kind of shuffling gait, neither fast nor slow, neither proud nor servile, a gait that drew no attention to itself. All week long, they quietly haunted the neighborhoods of Memphis, faceless and uncomplaining, a caste of untouchables. They called themselves the walking buzzards.
The truck Walker and Cole rode in — a fumy, clanking behemoth known as a wiener barrel — was an antiquated model that the Department of Public Works had introduced ten years earlier. It had an enormous hydraulic ram activated by a button on the outside of the vehicle. Though the city was in the process of phasing it out of the fleet, six wiener barrels still worked the Memphis streets. These trucks were known to be dangerous, even lethal: In 1964, two garbage workers were killed when a defective compactor caused a truck to flip over. The faulty trucks were one of a host of reasons why the Memphis sanitation workers had been trying to organize a union and — if necessary — go on strike.
Having completed their rounds, Crain, Walker, and Cole were happy to be heading toward the dump on Shelby Drive — and then, finally, home. They were cold and footsore, as they usually were by day's end, from lugging heavy tubs across the suburban lawns for ten hours straight. The advanced idea of wheeled bins had apparently not occurred to the Memphis Sanitation Department. Nor were homeowners in those days expected to meet the collection crews halfway by hauling their own crap to the curb. So, like all walking buzzards across the city, Walker and Cole had to march up the long driveways to back doors and carports, clicking privacy gates and entering backyards — sometimes to the snarl of dogs. There they transferred the people's garbage to their tubs, while also collecting tree cuttings, piles of leaves, dead animals, discarded clothes, busted furniture, or anything else the residents wanted taken away.
Now, as Crain, Cole, and Walker headed for the dump, their clothes were drenched in rain and encrusted with the juice that had dripped from the tubs all day. It was the usual slop of their profession — bacon drippings, clotted milk, chicken blood, souring gravies from the kitchens of East Memphis mingled with the tannic swill from old leaves. Plastic bags were not yet widely in use — no Ziploc or Hefty, no drawstrings or cinch ties to keep the sloshy messes contained. So the ooze accumulated on their clothes like a malodorous rime, and the city provided no showers or laundry for sanitation workers to clean themselves up at the end of the day. The men grew somewhat inured to it, but when they got home, they usually stripped down at the door: Their wives couldn't stand the stench.
AT 4:20 THAT AFTERNOON, a white woman was standing in her kitchen, looking out the window at Colonial Street. She heard something strange — a grinding sound, a shout, a scream. She rushed out the front door and stood in horror at the scene unfolding before her.
Willie Crain's big wiener-barrel truck had stopped outside. Some kind of struggle was taking place. The two workers, Walker and Cole, had been standing in the back of the truck, but they were in trouble now. The wires to the compacting motor had shorted out, and something had tripped the mechanism. A shovel wedged in the wrong place, perhaps, or lightning in the area — something had apparently set off a freak electrical malfunction.
Now the hydraulic ram was turning, grinding, squeezing, groaning. Crain slammed on the brakes, hopped out of the truck, and raced back to the safety switch. He mashed it and mashed it, but the ram inside would not stop.
Logy in their heavy, wet clothing, Walker and Cole tried to escape as soon as they heard the compactor motor turn on. But the hydraulic ram must have caught some stray fold or sleeve — and now began to pull them in. One of them seemed to break free, but at the last moment the machine found him again.
The screams were terrible as the compactor squeezed and ground them up inside. Crain frantically mashed the button. He could hear a terrible snapping inside — the crunch of human bone and sinew. The motor moaned on and on.
The horrified homeowner, who witnessed only the second worker's death, talked to reporters. "He was standing there on the end of the truck, and the machine was moving," she said. "His body went in first and his legs were hanging out. Suddenly it looked like that big thing just swallowed him whole."
THE STORY of the fatal accident scarcely made news in the Memphis paper the next morning. There was just a small item in The Commercial Appeal — a drab announcement with all the emotion of a bankruptcy notice. The paper failed to mention that the truck in question had a history of killing people, or that the families of Walker and Cole had no money to bury their two men, or that the city had no contractual obligation to compensate the widows beyond a rudimentary one-month severance. Earline Walker, the pregnant widow of Robert Walker, decided to have her husband buried in what amounted to a pauper's grave in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, down in the Delta, where their families had been field hands.
Instead, the headlines that morning were reserved for Memphis' most famous citizen — Elvis Presley — whose wife, Priscilla, had given birth to a six-pound, fifteen-ounce baby girl at Baptist Hospital less than an hour after Walker and Cole met their deaths. The Presleys' daughter had dark hair and blue eyes, and they'd named her Lisa Marie. For the rush to the hospital that morning, Elvis had orchestrated an elaborate caravan at Graceland, complete with a decoy vehicle to throw off reporters. Dressed in a pale blue suit and blue turtleneck, Elvis greeted well-wishers at the hospital while Priscilla rested — then blasted off again in a convoy of Lincolns and Cadillacs.
"I am so lucky, and my little girl is so lucky," Elvis said. "But what about all the babies born who don't have anything?"
JUST OVER a week later, on February 12, thirteen hundred employees from the city's sanitation, sewer, and drainage departments went on strike. Though the deaths of Walker and Cole provided the catalyst, the strike organizers had a long list of grievances that went well beyond the immediate question of safety. They wanted better pay, better hours, the right to organize, a procedure for resolving disputes. They wanted to be recognized as working professionals — and not as boys. Theirs was a labor dispute with unmistakable racial overtones, since almost all the sanitation and sewer workers were black.
February was an inauspicious time to begin a garbage strike; conventional wisdom had it that a work stoppage should occur in the summer, when the refuse would rot faster and produce an unholy stench. But the strike preyed on an old dread lodged deeply within the civil memory: Ever since the yellow-fever epidemic of 1878 — which was then thought to have been spawned by putrescent garbage heaped in open cesspools — the city had been extremely attentive to public cleanliness.
From the start the city refused to acknowledge the garbagemen's cause, or even their union's existence. Soon a few scabs were brought in, but they couldn't keep pace, and the garbage began to pile up all around the city. Municipal employees could not go on strike, Memphis' mayor, Henry Loeb, insisted. "This you can't do," he told them. "You are breaking the law. I suggest you go back to work."
Henry Loeb III was a garrulous, square-jawed man, six feet four, who had commanded a PT boat in the Mediterranean during World War II. He came from a family of millionaires that owned laundries, barbecue restaurants, and various real estate concerns. His wife, Mary, the daughter of a prominent cotton family, was Queen of the Cotton Carnival in 1950. It couldn't be said that Loeb was a racist — certainly not in the raw, Bull Connor sense — and he was by no means a typical cracker politician. For one thing, he'd been schooled in the East, at Phillips Andover and Brown; for another, he was Jewish, a biographical quirk that made him unfit for the Memphis Country Club (even though he'd recently converted to Christianity and joined his wife's Episcopal church).
But like many white business leaders in the South, Mayor Loeb approached the entwined subjects of labor and race with a paternalism reminiscent of the plantation. Although always outwardly courteous to blacks, he called them "nigras" despite his best efforts, and he seemed to believe that his fair city, having avoided the messy troubles of Little Rock, Birmingham, and Montgomery, didn't have a race problem. During an earlier term as mayor, Loeb had presided over the integration of the city's public establishments, schools, and restaurants without incident. Reinforced by that mostly positive experience, Loeb's position was that black folks in Memphis were content — and would remain so, as long as Northern agitators didn't come down and stir things up.
This was a prevalent attitude among white Memphians, in fact, an attitude perhaps best summed up by a popular cartoon that ran in The Commercial Appeal every morning. The creation of a Memphis editorial cartoonist named J.P. Alley, Hambone's Meditations featured the homespun wisdom of a loveably dim-witted black man, a kind of idiot savant. The grammatically challenged Hambone would say things like: "Don' make no diff'unce whut kin' o' face you's got, hit look mo' bettuh smilin'!!"
The garbage workers didn't seem so different from Hambone; many of them were older men who talked and carried themselves not unlike the cartoon character. They were "the world's least likely revolutionaries," journalist Garry Wills said at the time. Unschooled in the ways of protest, they were lowly Delta "blue-gums," as some whites still called them — men who scratched where they didn't itch and laughed at things that weren't funny. Yet these men were playing fiercely against type. They refused to listen to the mayor, and they would not go back to work. Instead, they were out there each day, marching down Main Street, past glowering police and unsympathetic merchants, on the way to city hall to lay their grievances before the massuh.
Mayor Loeb, stubborn as John Wayne, didn't see what was coming — even after it had arrived. Memphis, which had been run for generations by a well-oiled machine of an all-powerful political boss named E.H. Crump, was an orderly, quiet, and well-mannered town of leafy parkways and beautiful cul-de-sacs. Crump had died in 1954, but his punctilious spirit lived on. Affairs were supposed to run smoothly, and people were supposed to be nice. It was not only discourteous to honk your horn in Memphis; it was illegal. "This is not New York," Loeb told the strikers. "Nobody can break the law. You are putting my back up against a wall, and I am not going to budge."
The nominal leader of the strike was a blunt, overweight former garbage worker named T.O. Jones, a firebrand whose considerable courage could not quite make up for his lack of savvy or experience. Eventually the sanitation workers attracted more sophisticated national leadership in the form of labor representatives from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. The real moral force behind the strike, however, proved to be a local Memphis minister, a cerebral man who happened to be a legendary tactician of the civil rights movement. His name was James Lawson.
An old friend of Martin Luther King's, Lawson had studied the tenets of civil disobedience while living in India, had played a crucial role in leading the successful Nashville sit-ins of 1960, and had traveled to Vietnam on an early peace-seeking mission. Lawson saw the sanitation strike not merely as a labor dispute, but as a civil rights crusade, and soon he made his influence felt. "You are human beings," he told the striking workers. "You deserve dignity. You aren't a slave — you're a man."
One day a few weeks after the start of the strike, the garbage workers began carrying a placard whose slogan, echoing Lawson's words, neatly summed up their fight. The slogan caught on, in Memphis, and then around the nation. It said: I AM A MAN.
Throughout the month of February 1968, as Martin Luther King stepped up his travels around the country to promote the Poor People's Campaign, it became clear to everyone close to him that he desperately needed a vacation. His doctor said so, and so did Coretta. Friends and colleagues noticed the bags under his eyes, the despair in his voice, the worry on his face. He nursed ever-deepening doubts about himself and the direction of the movement. His insomnia worsened. In speeches and sermons, he touched increasingly on morbid themes. He even made the SCLC draft new bylaws declaring that his closest friend and right-hand man, Ralph Abernathy, would automatically succeed him should anything happen to him. King, clearly, was about to snap.
Finally his staff prevailed over him. It was time for their leader to head for somewhere sunny. Abernathy would go with him. Their usual habit, this season of the year, was to spend a week in Jamaica. This time, though, King had a different idea: They would fly to Acapulco.
They left the first week of March. On the initial flight, to Dallas, King fell into an argument with a segregationist white man from North Carolina. Ordinarily King never engaged in pointless one-on-one jousts, but something about the man ignited his temper. Uncharacteristically aggressive in pressing his points, King talked about the Poor People's Campaign as an alternative to riots this summer. The argument predictably went nowhere, but when they landed in Dallas, the segregationist wished King good luck in Washington, saying, "It may be the last chance for your brand of non-violence."
On the ramp, Abernathy questioned King about the argument. "Why do you even bother with those guys?" he said. "You know you can't convince them."
"I don't play with them anymore, Ralph," King said testily. "I don't care who it offends."
In the Dallas airport, King and Abernathy stopped off in a men's clothing shop. When he noticed Abernathy admiring a collection of fine neckties, King lapsed into an effusively generous mood. "Here, take this," he said, handing Abernathy his American Express card. "Buy one for me, and four or five for yourself, whatever you want." He took off down the terminal to place a call at a payphone while Abernathy bought nearly fifty dollars' worth of ties.
They landed in Acapulco that afternoon and checked into a suite at the El Presidente Hotel, with a balcony that looked out over Condesa Beach and the brilliant blue Pacific. King and Abernathy spent the day watching the famous cliff divers and then ducking into shops of La Costera. King remained in a sentimental and ultra-generous mood, one that Abernathy found sweet but strange. Anything that met Abernathy's fancy, King tried to buy it.
After a long day, they collapsed in their suite. Abernathy woke up in the dead of night, around three o'clock in the morning, with a stab of foreboding. In the dim light, he looked around and noticed that King wasn't in his bed. Worried, he checked the bathroom and the common room, but his friend was nowhere to be found. He thought about calling hotel security. Then he remembered the balcony.
He opened the sliding door and found King there, in his pajamas, leaning over the railing, lost in thought. Even when Abernathy drew near to his side, King still didn't seem to register his presence.
Abernathy and King had been together since the beginning — since the Montgomery bus boycott and the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They'd met in 1951, when Abernathy, a native Alabaman and World War II veteran, was a student pursuing a master's degree in sociology. Since then, they'd marched together, tasted tear gas together, gone to jail together. And nearly everywhere they went in their ceaseless travels, they shared the same hotel room. They were inseparable friends — "a team," as Abernathy put it, "each of us severely crippled without the other." But in all those turbulent years, Abernathy had never been so worried about his friend. He feared that King might have received another letter from the FBI, urging him to commit suicide. He worried that suicide was what King vaguely had in mind even now, as he leaned out over the balcony.
"Martin," he said. "What you doing out here this time of night? What's troubling you?"
King didn't reply at first. He just stood there, arms draped over the railing. He stared and stared at the ocean. "You see that rock out there?" he finally said.
Abernathy looked over the dark water and saw a huge rock set in the bay, waves frothing around it. "Yeah, I see it," he said, puzzled.
"How long you think it's been there?" King asked.
"I really don't know. Centuries and centuries. I guess God put it there."
The waves smashed and hissed. "You know what I'm thinking about?" King said.
"No, I really don't." Abernathy's concern was edging into annoyance. "Tell me."
"You can't tell me what I'm thinking about, looking at that rock?" Abernathy only shook his head — he was irritated by this cryptic guessing game.
In the silence, King started singing a hymn. "Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee."
Now Abernathy understood. It was the old hymn they'd sung together many times before, a reverie about approaching death, about finding comfort in the final hours. Though he was now thoroughly spooked, Abernathy joined in, and for a time the old friends sang out over the sea breeze of Acapulco:
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyes shall close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See thee on thy judgment throne,
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee.
ONE OF THE self-help books that the Reverend Xavier von Koss recommended to Eric Galt, Psycho-Cybernetics, by Dr. Maxwell Maltz, was a slender paperback with a blazing orange cover. The book claimed to offer "a new technique for using your subconscious power" by incorporating recent discoveries from the emerging world of computers.
Galt studied Psycho-Cybernetics closely. Throughout this strange little book, Dr. Maltz drew an analogy between the human personality and "servo-mechanisms" like the electronic computer. He proposed to show how a person could lead a happier, more fulfilled life by following some of the same ruthlessly goal-oriented processes that "servo-mechanisms" use to accomplish assigned tasks and solve computational problems.
"Your brain and nervous system constitute a goal-striving mechanism which operates automatically," he wrote. Maltz's basic point was that, much like a computer, the human personality craves a central, organizing goal. Said Maltz: "The automatic creative mechanism within you can operate in only one way: It must have a target to shoot at."
The trick to happiness and fulfillment, Maltz argued, is "to purge all memory of past failures" while developing what he called a "nostalgia for the future." All along, one must keep "the desired end-result constantly in mind," aggressively seizing every opportunity to move toward it. "You must go on the offensive," Maltz stressed, while focusing the mind much like the electronic brain that drives a self-guided weapon. The goal-striving mechanism, he said, "works very much as a self-aiming torpedo or missile seeks out its target and steers its way to it."
In Psycho-Cybernetics, Dr. Maltz was fond of quoting a line from Emerson: "Do the thing and you will have the power." The goal cannot be some far-off abstraction that one loosely dreams and procrastinates about; it must be a sharp goad for intense activity and applied effort.
"Don't think before you act. Act — and correct your actions as you go along," Maltz advised. "It is the way all servo-mechanisms must work. A torpedo does not 'think out' all its errors in advance. It must act first — start moving toward its goal — then correct any errors which may occur."
Oddly, Dr. Maltz was neither a psychologist nor a computer specialist, but a plastic surgeon. For years he had cut away on the faces of burn victims, sufferers of congenital birth defects, survivors of traumatic car accidents, and assorted unlucky souls cursed with hairlips and cleft palettes.
Dr. Maltz loved his work and claimed that the personalities of his patients often changed dramatically after their procedures — they brightened, blossomed, and began to move successfully toward their goals. "When you change a man's face you almost invariably change his future," Maltz wrote. "A plastic surgeon does not simply alter a man's face. He alters the man's inner self. The incisions frequently cut deep into the psyche."
ON MARCH 5, perhaps prompted by his reading of Psycho-Cybernetics, Galt visited a prominent plastic surgeon, Dr. Russell Hadley, in his medical office on Hollywood Boulevard. A bearish, likable man, and a former medic in World War II, Dr. Hadley now taught on the staff of the USC Medical School. Galt was scheduled to have a rhinoplasty — a nose job.
Galt wanted the tip of his nose sculpted to make it appear less bulbous. When Dr. Hadley asked why, Galt replied that he was an actor seeking cosmetic improvements because he had begun to land some enticing roles in TV commercials. "I casually told him," Galt later said, "that I thought the surgery would enhance my prospects, and the doctor saw nothing out of the ordinary." Galt had other features he wanted to alter — most notably his prominent ears, which had always been a source of embarrassment to him — but he'd save those procedures for another day. "The ears," Galt said, "would have to wait."
Hadley informed him that the fee for the rhinoplasty procedure was two hundred dollars, and Galt promptly paid in cash. On the medical form, Galt gave his address as "the St. Francis Hotel" and listed his nearest relative as a "Carl L. Galt," of Birmingham, Alabama.
As he customarily did, Dr. Hadley snapped a "before" picture of Galt, which he planned to compare with an "after" picture he would take once the patient's scars were fully healed. Then Hadley, donning a mask and surgical gown, put Galt under local anesthesia, packed his nostrils with gauze and cocaine strips, and, with his fine scalpels and suctioning tools at the ready, performed the rhinoplasty in a small operating room adjacent to his office. The procedure took about an hour. After suturing the incisions and bandaging the abraded flesh, Dr. Hadley sent Galt on his way.
The operation had gone flawlessly, but Galt was not quite satisfied. Back home at the St. Francis, he ripped off his bandages. Standing in front of a mirror, Galt resolved to improve on things. He pressed and shaped the inflamed cartilage of his nose, bending it slightly to the right. This little exercise in self-manipulation must have smarted terribly, but Galt, wincing through the pain, was determined to accentuate the work that Hadley had done. Then Galt retaped his nose, as he later put it, "in a position that would apply more pressure to the end of my nose," in the hope that it would "heal in a more Roman, aquiline fashion."
Galt met the doctor for a follow-up appointment on March 7 to have the nasal pack removed, and then for another appointment on March 11, when Dr. Hadley undid the stitches. The doctor noted that the wounds were "healing well."
The patient was scheduled for one last appointment several weeks later — a check-up in which he was supposed to pose for the "after" photo — but Eric Galt never returned to the offices of Dr. Russell Hadley.
Although Galt had spent several long hours in his close care — and Hadley prided himself on rarely forgetting a face — the details of his patient's visage would soon vanish from his memory. "I'm a fairly observant person," Hadley later said. "Faces are my business. But what amazes me is that, try as I might, I cannot remember anything at all about Eric S. Galt."
LATER THAT SAME WEEK, Martin Luther King was also in Los Angeles, staying in a hotel only a few miles from the St. Francis. On March 16, King gave a talk to the California Democratic Council at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, where he praised the cheering crowds for endorsing Senator Eugene McCarthy's presidential bid (even though King himself had not formally endorsed McCarthy). He then made disparaging comments about Johnson that were widely quoted in the news. "The government is emotionally committed to the war," King said, but "emotionally hostile to the needs of the poor." King made the local news on all three networks, as well as in the Los Angeles Times, but his statements were largely overshadowed by Robert Kennedy's formal declaration, made that same day from Washington, that he would run for the presidency.
The next day, Sunday, March 17 — St. Patrick's Day — King delivered a sermon titled "The Meaning of Hope" at a church in Los Angeles. He said that hatred, whether practiced by whites or blacks, was becoming a national disease. "I've seen hatred," he told the congregation, "on too many faces — on the faces of sheriffs in the South and on the faces of John Birch Society members in California. Hate is too great a burden to bear. I can't hate."
Sometime that day, the Reverend James Lawson in Memphis reached King by telephone in his hotel. Lawson had an urgent invitation: He wanted his old friend to swing through Memphis and give a talk to the striking garbage workers. The sanitation strike was now over a month old and reaching a crisis stage, Lawson said. During a recent peaceful march down Main Street, the police had attacked the garbage workers with Mace and billy clubs. Mayor Loeb was digging in, and things were getting ugly. Could King lend a hand?
King asked Lawson when he'd like him to be there.
Lawson said the sooner the better, noting that a mass meeting was scheduled for the very next night, March 18. Lawson told King that if he came, he could expect to address a crowd of at least ten thousand people. What was happening in Memphis, Lawson said, was the perfect illustration of what he was trying to accomplish with the Poor People's Campaign — a spirited fusion of racial and socioeconomic issues. King needed to see it for himself.
As it happened, King was already scheduled to travel through Mississippi all the next week. A brief detour through Memphis wouldn't be too taxing on his itinerary, King agreed.
Even as he said this, Lawson could hear some of King's staff members grumbling in the background. Andrew Young, the executive vice president of the SCLC, was one of the grumblers. He worried that Memphis was a distraction, if not a trap. King needed to stay focused on the main goal, the march in Washington. Their month was already seriously overbooked, and King was exhausted from ceaseless traveling. Young and Abernathy knew that King had an incorrigible habit of ensnaring himself in local conflicts by accepting "just one little invitation to give just one little speech."
But King overruled Young and the rest of the staff. He told Lawson what he wanted to hear. They would rework the itinerary and King would fly to Memphis tomorrow in time for the mass meeting. It would only be one night — what could be the harm in that?
AT THE SAME MOMENT that King was giving his Sunday sermon only a few miles away, Eric Galt walked down to the front desk of the St. Francis Hotel and gave notice that he would be vacating his room. He filled out an official postal service card to have his mail forwarded to "General Delivery, Atlanta." This venue change was more than a little strange, for Eric Galt had no personal connection to the state of Georgia. Apparently, he'd never been to Atlanta in his life.
It had been one week since his last appointment with Dr. Hadley. The stitch marks on his nose were almost gone, and Galt felt more comfortable out in public. That day, he took care of a number of last-minute errands in preparation for his cross-country trip. The next morning, Monday, March 18, he threw all his belongings in his car — the Channel Master transistor radio, the portable Zenith television, the photographic equipment, the sex toys and self-help books. He stopped by Marie Tomaso's place and picked up a box of clothes that she'd asked him to drop off for her family in New Orleans.
Then he pointed the Mustang east, towards Martin Luther King's hometown.
KING FLEW EAST on the late afternoon of March 18 and landed in Memphis just in time to speak to the rally that had assembled at Mason Temple, a massive black Pentecostal church downtown. Lawson hadn't lied about the turnout — in fact, he'd significantly underestimated it. When King entered the cavernous, Quonset-roofed hall and stepped up to the podium, he found more than fifteen thousand cheering fans packed inside.
After the roar subsided, King greeted the sanitation workers and congratulated them for their difficult struggle. "You are demonstrating," he began, "that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one black person is down, we are all down. You are reminding not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages."
King was invigorated by this crowd. The energy in the great hall was intoxicating. No one booed, no one heckled. This audience unequivocally loved him, and everyone seemed united behind the strike — in lieu of collection plates, enormous garbage cans were passed around and filled with donations. "I want you to stick it out," King said, until "you can make Mayor Loeb say, 'Yes,' even when he wants to say, 'No.'"
King spoke for an hour, almost entirely without notes. He explained why he thought the Memphis strike fit into the larger fight that was now central to the movement — the fight for economic justice symbolized by his upcoming Poor People's Campaign. "With Selma and the voting rights bill," he said, "one era came to a close. Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't earn enough money to buy a cup of coffee?"
King moved toward a broad indictment of American society — how could a nation so rich and technologically innovative fail to recognize the misery of its poorest citizens? "We built gigantic buildings to kiss the sky," King said, and "gargantuan bridges to span the seas. Through our spaceships we carve highways through the stratosphere. Through our submarines we penetrate oceanic depths. But it seems I can hear the God of the universe saying, 'Even though you've done all of that, I was hungry and you fed me not. I was naked and ye clothed me not. So you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness.'"
King left the microphone for a moment to confer with Lawson, then returned to the podium to close his address with an announcement that did not please his staff: He was coming back to Memphis in a few days to conduct a massive march downtown on behalf of the garbage workers. "I will lead you through the center of Memphis," he said. "I want a tremendous work stoppage, and all of you, your families and children, will join me." The date would be Friday, March 22.
The crowds went wild, and King's face lit up. He loved the spirit here in Memphis. It seemed that everyone in the hall was smiling — everyone except Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young, who could only roll their eyes and think: Just one little speech.
IN TRUTH, KING had a conflicted relationship with Memphis, a town he had visited many times before. It was a very different city from Atlanta, rougher around the edges, funkier, with a population that was poorer, less educated, and closer to the cotton fields. The last time King had stayed any length of time here was in 1966. In June of that year, James Meredith, who'd become nationally famous four years earlier as the first African-American man to attend the University of Mississippi, was leading a solitary march — the March Against Fear, he called it — from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi, to protest brutality against blacks when he was struck down by a white sniper wielding a shotgun; seriously but not fatally hurt, Meredith had become a victim of the very thing he was marching against. King joined a clutch of civil rights leaders in Memphis to pick up where Meredith had fallen — and to trudge through sultry heat all the way to Jackson, Mississippi. Though they reached their destination, the march ended with tear-gas dousings and a deepening rift between King and Stokely Carmichael's emergent black-power movement. King's memories of the episode were not fond ones.
On that stay in Memphis two years ago, King had briefly lodged at his usual hangout, the black-owned Lorraine Motel, located a few blocks from the river on the south end of downtown. True to habit, King and entourage returned to his old haunt tonight, after the speech at Mason Temple.
The Lorraine had long been popular among Stax musicians, gospel singers, and itinerant ministers. Count Basie had stayed here, as had Ray Charles, the Staple Singers, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, and Nat "King" Cole. The old part of the lodge — the Lorraine Hotel — had once been a white whorehouse. But in the mid-1940s the husband-and-wife team of Walter and Loree Bailey bought the place and worked hard to make it respectable, building a new wing that was a modern motor court.
King liked the homey feel of the place, the way you could wander right into the kitchen at odd hours and order whatever you wanted. Over the years, King had stayed at the Lorraine at least a dozen times, and the Baileys had become like family. The room rate was thirteen dollars a night, but the Baileys refused to charge King.
King usually stayed in Room 306, on the second floor of the motel, in the middle of the long balcony. Abernathy referred to it as "the King-Abernathy suite." Furnished with twin beds, a television, cheap Danish contemporary furniture, and a black rotary telephone, 306 was a modest-sized paneled room appointed in a 1960s contemporary style that Andrew Young later described as "seeming so modern then and so frightful today."
King, Abernathy, Young, and the few others in the entourage stayed up far into the night, meeting with local ministers and planning the March 22 demonstration: It was decided that they would march down Beale Street, the fabled avenue of the blues. Lawson, along with AFSCME leaders, would organize the march, and King would drop into the ranks in the mid-morning to lead the procession. Given everything he'd seen at Mason Temple tonight, King was tremendously optimistic. Not since Selma had he been a part of something that felt so auspicious.
The next morning King and his crew rose early and headed straight south into the poorest precincts of the Delta, to begin a brief whirlwind through Mississippi. The day started in Clarksdale, in the heart of blues country — the town where, according to one version of the legend, the young Robert Johnson met the devil at midnight at "The Crossroads" and sold his soul to learn to play guitar. King was brought to tears by the poverty he saw in the plantation settlements of shotgun shacks, surrounded by wet, fallow cotton fields.
Later in the day, King and his entourage worked their way down to a rally at Jennings Temple Church in Greenwood, Mississippi, a town also steeped in the Robert Johnson story. Just outside of Greenwood, in 1938, the itinerant bluesman, still in his late twenties, died a horrible death, likely of strychnine poisoning, said to have been slipped in his whiskey by an angry juke-joint owner. A fellow musician said Johnson "crawled on his hands and knees and barked like a dog before he died."
It was, for King, haunted country, country just a few steps from slavery, and a natural place for his Poor People's Campaign to take root.
He would return to Memphis in three days.
On the blustery spring day of March 22, Eric Galt swung his Mustang into Selma, Alabama. He was exhausted from the stress of his transcontinental journey, and eager to clean off the grunge of the road. The drive from Los Angeles had taken four days. He'd taken a southernly route across the prickly deserts of the Southwest, and then down into Texas. He stopped for one night in New Orleans where, true to his promise, he dropped off the box of clothes for Marie Tomaso's family.
Entering the Selma city limits, he turned in to the parking lot of the Flamingo Motel, on Highway 80, not far from the heart of town — and checked in, signing the register book, "ERIC S. GALT."
Galt moved into his room and peered out the window at the traffic on Highway 80. The Flamingo was located just a few blocks from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where three years earlier Martin Luther King had helped lead several hundred marchers into the teeth of Governor Wallace's mounted state troopers.
A gritty agribusiness town on the Alabama River, Selma had been a major Confederate rail hub and manufacturing center for war matériel — including shells, saltpeter, and even ironclad warships. Nathan Bedford Forrest led a doomed effort to save the town's munitions factories from the Union torch in the very last days of the war. But it was the civil rights movement that had made Selma famous around the world, a fact that Galt must have known. The spirited marchers had tramped by this very motel, down this very road — Highway 80 — en route to the state capitol in Montgomery to lay their grievances at the feet of Galt's beloved Governor Wallace. The Selma-to-Montgomery march was in some ways the acme of the civil rights movement. The confrontation at the Pettus Bridge shocked the nation and resulted in President Johnson's signing of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Why had Galt come to Selma, Alabama? What business did he have with this racially freighted burg in the fecund Black Belt of Alabama, this arsenal of the dead Confederacy, with its crumbling antebellum mansions and its live oaks gauzed in Spanish moss? He was no Civil War buff, and certainly no fan of the civil rights movement. One didn't easily wander into Selma on the way to someplace else; it was not on the main roads between New Orleans, Birmingham, and Atlanta, Galt's ultimate destination. Yet something about Selma interested him enough to make a detour — of nearly sixty miles — to stay the night here.
There is one clue. That morning Galt had awakened in New Orleans, where the Times-Picayune reported a curious fact: Martin Luther King was scheduled to make a public appearance in Selma that very day to drum up recruits for his Poor People's Campaign. Other newspapers and TV stations across the South reported King's plans as well.
The conclusion was unavoidable: In making his detour and speeding his way up to little Selma on this particular day, Eric Galt appeared to be stalking Martin Luther King. But stalking him for what purpose? Armed only with his Japanese-made Liberty Chief revolver, he surely was not thinking of killing King — at least not yet. That was far too risky. With a handgun, he would have to shoot close in, and unless King was entirely alone, Galt would run a high risk of being captured.
Yet the potent symbolism of killing King in Selma must have registered with him. To many who thought as Galt did, it would seem a delicious irony that George Wallace's nemesis should be cut down in the very spot where the most famous insult to the governor's authority, and to the honor of his state, had taken place.
Far more likely, though, Galt had come to Selma just to get a sense of King's entourage. He wanted to take note of the style in which the minister traveled, his habits of movement, the presence or absence of bodyguards or police details. What were King's most obvious vulnerabilities? What car did he ride in, and in what sort of convoy? How long did he linger with the crowds? King's appearance in Selma would be, for Galt, a kind of dry run.
On a deeper level, it is also possible that Galt wanted to see King for himself and hear his message first-hand, to stoke his rancor for the man and his movement. But Galt's anticipated encounter with his target was not to be. King never reached Selma that evening, and his talk was canceled. Mustering recruits for the Poor People's Campaign, he was delayed in the tiny town of Camden, thirty-eight miles away, and ended up spending the night there. (It's possible, of course, that Galt somehow learned of this late-breaking revision in the SCLC itinerary in time to catch King's appearance in Camden, but there's no evidence for it.)
When a frustrated Galt woke up the next morning in Selma, he began to weigh his options. The papers were now reporting that the Nobel laureate would be heading home. If King would not come to Galt, then Galt would go to King. So Galt checked out of the Flamingo Motel the next morning and headed northeast, on dry roads, in the direction of Atlanta.
ON MARCH 22, the day of the proposed march down Beale Street, Memphis awoke to an extraordinary spectacle. Over the night, seventeen inches of snow had fallen, and the city was a wonderland, with a heavy wet slurry smothering the jonquils, freezing the azalea blossoms, and bending the branches of magnolia trees. Serious snow was a rarity in Memphis, especially in the month of March, but this one was for the record books: It was the second largest snowstorm in the city's history. Memphis shut down. Schools and factories and government offices closed, with power outages reported throughout the region. Nature, as one wag put it, had gone on strike.
Lawson told King the news: An act of God had intervened, and the march would have to be postponed. "We've got a perfect work stoppage, though!" he quipped. Lawson and King set a new date for the march — Thursday, March 28.
The papers called it, simply, "The Day of the Big Snow." A prominent black minister in Memphis said, "Well, the Lord has done it again — it's a white world." While many people in Memphis welcomed the great storm and the respite it provided from civil tensions, others saw it as a bad omen. "It had never snowed that late in March," said one strike supporter. "And some of us felt that something was just in the air, and that something dreadful was going to happen . . . ."