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H2O Man

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Member since: Mon Dec 29, 2003, 07:49 PM
Number of posts: 66,809

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While Walls Tumble

"The moment of triumph had turned catastrophic. What should have been a peaceful march through the heart of black Memphis to the steps of city hall had exploded into a full-on riot. Looters ran wild. The police moved in with Mace, nightsticks, and tear gas. A sixteen year old boy was shot to death by the police. Fifty other people were injured and another 120 arrested. The governor called up four thousand National Guardsmen to restore order and the mayor virtually sut down the city."
-- Tavis Smiley


The above quote, taken from Smiley's important book, "The Death of a King," tells of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Thursday, March 29, 1968 aborted march in Memphis. Smiley's book focuses on the difficulties King encountered in his last year on earth, including the only time that a King-led march involved protesters engaging in violence. Because events drom when King returned to Memphis for another march, scheduled for a week after the first, is generally overlooked when MLK is remembered.

The majority of the marches that King led involved tension and violence. But it always came exclusively from the white "counter-protesters" that gathered to oppose the Civil Eights movement. King was even stabbed with a letter-opener while giving a speech. And, of course, he was assassinated while in Memphis when he returned for the second march. Indeed, the only time that King was involed in a march without tension was the Augest 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

How did the March 29 march turn violent? The media reported that a gang known as the Invaders had with the protesters, and they were identified as the ones that initiated the violence that ended the march. King and his closest associate, Ralp Abernathy, knew that the national media would blame King for the riots. Much of the press had turned on King after his April 4, 1967 speech at the Riverside Church in New York City, and conected the war in Vietnam with racial and economic issues in the US. It was one thing to integrate a bus or a lunch counter, but quite another to question the county's economic and foreign policies.

King and Abernathy would lear "why" the rioting started the next morning. Three members of the Invaders came to Martin and Ralph's motel room to apologize. At first, Abernathy told them that King was sleeping, and that they could not see him. Ralph was protective of Martin, and patted the young men down to make sure they were not carrying weapons. Then he told them how much harm they had done, not only to Martin Luther King, Jr., but to efforts to bring social justice in their city. (Ralph Abernathy; When the Walls Came Tumbling Down; Harper & Row; 1989; pages 420-421)

King also spoke with the three young men. He learned that the sixteen year old killed by the police was one of the Invaders. He also learned about the gang members' frustration with their being left out of the planning of the march. This was rooted in the tensions between representatives of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, local community leaders, and the Invaders.

The national leadership of the SCLC had not been active participants in the planning of the first march. They were busy planning for King's proposed "Poor People's Campaign," scheduled for Washington, DC, that summer. Thus, it was regional SCLC leaders that were involved in the brief planning -- they did not conduct, for example, workshops on non-violent protest.

More, there were tensions between the SCLC leaders, Memphis's community leaders, and the Invaders at the few planning sessions. This, of course, is natural under the best of conditions. It was more of a factor under the harsh circumstances in Memphis. An example of the disagreements came when the Invaders requested SCLC funds to rent hotel or motel rooms. Local community leaders thought they were asking for help to avoid the police. (Steven B. Oates; Let the Trumpets Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.; Mentor; 1982; pages 460 - 470)

King recognized that the young men were sincere in their apologies. He knew that the Invaders' violent outburst were the result of their frustrations in thinking they were left out, plus the lack of the non-violent workshops. King recognized that frustrated young men, especially in crowds, sometimes make poor choices. So he invited them to participate in the non-violent march that had to happen the next week. (David J. Garrow; Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Perennial; 1986; Chapter 11, The Poor People's Campaign and Memphis 1967 - 1968)

King did not live to participate in the second march, or the Poor Peopl's Campaign. His final speech, in Memphis the night before he was assassinated, still haunts America. If we are ever actually able to make it to the top of the mountain, we need to recognize and honor the human Martin, rather than the plaster of paris image that tends to separate him from humanity. For he was far more than the "I Have a Dream" speech. Far, far more. This includes his interactions with the Invaders.

Later on the night of King's death, Senator Robert Kennedy was scheduled to give a campaign speech in Indianapolis. The city's police chief warned RFK that he could not provide adequate protection if the gathering crowd became violent. Kennedy went ahead, and spoke to the crowd of an estimated 2,500 from the heart. In his improvised speech, he told the people -- who were unaware at the time -- about King's murder. He spoke about his own experience, losing his brother to similar violence. He talked about the need to combat hatred in America.

That night, Indianapolis was one of the few large American cities to not endure riots. Across the country, there was more violence than at any time other than the Civil War. At the same time RFK was addressing the Indianapolis crowd, the Pentagon had begun to put into place a plan developed after the Watts riot, to take control if black citizens were to engage in rioting in a given city. By morning, enough cities were on fire that the plan was primarily focused on protecting Washington, DC.

Also that night, President Johnson told governors and mayors to not over-react. However, by the following day, LBJ ordered the Army and National Guard to be mobilized, primarily to protect Washington, DC. In transcripts of the White House tapes from that day, there is a heated conversation between the president and Chicago's Mayor Daley. LBJ is demanding a strong military intervention, while Daley explains that would create more wide-spread violence.

(Note: I do not support the rioting, burning, and looting associated with recent protests. But I do understand it. With the exception of the violence started by boogaloo boys and militia nerds, those engaged in such activities do not see any connection between "politics" and their lives. While it is true that we do not have a Martin Luther King or a Robert Kennedy at this time, we do have people in leadership positions within the Democratic Party, community leaders, and people at the grass roots that can deliver similar messages. That is an important part of restoring democracy, and bringing about social justice.)
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