The Day the Earth Stood Still: Memphis, April 4, 1968
Jackson Baker’s account of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the immediate aftermath. Originally written April 5, 1968.
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When the plane began to taxi in, a policeman hoisted a bullhorn and announced, “If you move in while the plane is not stopped the plane will not stop and will head to the exit.” That aborted a rustle in the crowd, but the thrust forward started up again upon the closer approach of the American Airlines turbojet. The policeman raised his horn and, frowning, he said, “This is not the plane you’re interested in. This is only staff members of the party. This is not the plane carrying Mrs. King. We’ll let you know when the plane you’re interested in comes in.”
As absurd as that was, most of the reporters seemed to go for it, and the rustle subsided again. Some of Martin Luther King’s soul relations, however, were not deceived. A young Negro rushed forward, but retreated when a Guardsman advanced his way only to be shoved again in the direction of the Guardsman by a woman who shouted, “You better not hit him, either!” Squaring his feet, the Guardsman said, “Go on back, boy, please,” and the young Negro retreated again, more slowly this time.
The crowd bucked and murmured with frustration as half an hour went by and delegations of people close to King moved on and off the plane. Even the dullest reporter began to sense that this continuing traffic was strange if Mrs. King was indeed not aboard the plane. And abruptly, someone claimed to have sighted her delicate, handsome head for a moment at one of the windows. Two girls gripped each other by the shoulders and cried. A television network man jabbed a thumb into the back of his cameraman, then pointed the thumb at the girls, thereby directing him to photograph the scene.
Spokesmen for Dr. King, for the sanitation workers’ union, for the SCLC passed in such frequency between the crowd and the plane that reporters, even the local ones, were momentarily confused. “Who’s that man? That, er, that Negro.” “What’s the fellow’s name, never can remember, hey you!” And “hey, you!” a television reporter kept on saying whenever someone who looked quotable came within hailing distance.
At some point, a white Cadillac limousine rolled out partway to the strip, and Ramsay Clark, the attorney general, emerged from it. He was lost immediately in a sea of men, cameras, microphones, and cables. Soon, a federal marshal rescued Clark and escorted him back to the car. The word was passed that Clark had spoken of “substantial evidence” in solving the murder. “Yah!” a Negro said scornfully. “They’ll get him. Them whitey big shots’ll get him. Sure!”
Then, for perhaps the only moment that morning, cynicism was altogether muted — or rather drowned out. For two women began singing a familiar hymn and soon a full chorus of brave and strong voices were booming out of the bridge. “Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday.” For a full fifteen minutes they sang, and while they did, another white Cadillac limousine drove onto the runway. Heads craned to see which whitey big shot this might be, but it was then that the bronze casket inside caught some of the sun’s glitter, and the crowd, giving out something like a moan, surged forward. Someone began the verse “Black and white together . . .” in its proper sequence, but stronger voices substituted, “We are not afraid . . .” And the crowd, not necessarily black and white together, kept on advancing toward the hearse.
Anything might have happened, but Ralph Abernathy, the slight mustachioed vice president of the SCLC, then stepped in front of the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he pleaded, “I urge you to move back behind the line. After I’ve finished, it will be entirely proper for you to sing that anthem.”
Abernathy looked somehow shrunken, insignificant, but that might have been the effect of grief. With Dr. King’s death, he had acceded to the leadership of the SCLC. In his gentle way, he spoke of the past and of Dr. King’s legacy, and reminded his new followers that he and “many, many others from all over the country” would be back Monday for another march. “And now, I want you to be very, very dignified as you sing,” Abernathy concluded.
Dr. King had led the Montgomery bus boycotters in this hymn back in 1956, at the beginning of his career; it was, one could say, his very own. Two nights before, Dr. King had told the throng which greeted him at this very airport, “I may not make it with you, but we as a people will get to the mountaintop!” Now the hoarse chorus of “We Shall Overcome Someday” became a thunderous last tribute to him. Shortly afterward, the casket was lifted on the plane, and as the jet rose toward Atlanta, a sudden quiet fell on the airfield. A young Negro faced the distance into which the plane was vanishing and raised a fist into the sky, his knuckles pointing back toward the reporters. And that was all the story at Memphis Municipal Airport.
Back at the Lorraine Motel that afternoon, Ike Pappas of CBS stood in front of Room 306, giving his camera crew down on the parking lot instructions on how to shoot him for best effect. Two members of a National Education Television crew, one white, one Negro, had moved into place beside the CBS men. Visibly irritated, Pappas leaned down from the balcony and jabbed his finger at the NET crewmen. “Hey, I don’t like that. What’s going on?” The NET crew moved aside, and Pappas, after fingering his foulard tie and adjusting the sleeves of his expensive sharkskin suit, began to rehearse his prepared remarks in a pleasant, low intonation.
On the lot, not far from the cameramen, were several baleful-looking young Negroes, all of whom wore jackets bearing the words “Invaders” in large, white-felt letters. The Invaders, a sort of local Black Panther group which disdained moderation, had rampaged out of the mortified Dr. King’s control during the march he led a week ago. They had caused most of the damage on Beale Street.
One of Dr. King’s friends, standing down the balcony from Pappas, looked at the young men below, then at Pappas, and nervously running his fingers along the seam of his topcoat, he whispered to a reporter, “They got a saying in niggertown, ‘When it’s cool, we’re cool.’ ’Spect it’s gone get hot by Monday.” He would have said more, but Pappas was into his spiel, and in deference, not to him, but to the ghost of Room 306, everyone became quiet as Pappas, to demonstrate Dr. King’s position when the shots were fired, bent toward the parking lot below, more or less in the direction of the Invaders, who were standing motionless in a pack, silent, very silent, more silent than anyone else on the lot.