Much of today’s coverage of the fortieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination examines the reverend’s legacy through the telescopic lens of American culture: from the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis has grown a forty-year-old dialogue about race and equality whose rhetoric is often as lofty as that of the man who inspired it. And rightly so: lyrical language makes a fitting tribute to a leader who so masterfully used words in the service of action.
Still, sometimes the simplest tributes are just as affecting. And one of the best I’ve seen in this regard (via TNR’s Jason Zengerle) is a Memphis magazine piece narrating the final moments of Dr. King’s life: a classic tick-tock, sparse in language but rich in detail, marrying the banal (“King and Abernathy dress for dinner. Because King’s skin is so sensitive, he ‘shaves’ by using a homemade depilatory”) and the sublime (“I have been to the mountaintop”) and made even more wrenching by the piece’s suggestion—declared at its outset, and implied throughout—that King knew he was soon to be slain.
The piece is worth a read in its entirety; here, however, are two excerpts.
April 3, 1968:
7:30 p.m. — Tornado sirens begin moaning across the city.
9:00 p.m. — King arrives at Mason Temple and receives a standing ovation. Abernathy gives him a 25-minute introduction, complete with jokes and stories. Another minister chastises him: “We thought you weren’t going to make a speech. Didn’t you know that they came to hear Martin?”
9:30 p.m. — King begins his famous “Mountaintop” speech, beginning by noting, “Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world.” He also tells about the time a woman walked up to him in a department store and stabbed him in the chest, narrowly missing his heart. Lawson, listening off to one side, thought the murder attempt was an odd subject to discuss: “I said to myself, ‘I’ve never heard him do that in public in quite that way.’”
10:00 p.m. — Tornados and thunderstorms sweep across Shelby County. Wind gusts repeatedly slam into the shutters of Mason Temple with a BANG as lightning flashes outside.
10:15 p.m. — King continues: “And then I got into Memphis. 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 then it really doesn’t matter to me now.” He pauses. “Because I have been to the mountaintop.”
10:20 p.m. — Ivan Webb, night desk clerk at the Rebel Motel, notices the lights remain on all night in Room 34 [the room James Earl Ray had rented]. Honey writes, “Ray watched television news as it casually pictured King entering Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. Ray knew right where to find him.”
10:30 p.m. — King concludes his speech with, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” and takes a seat, his eyes wet with tears. Honey writes, “Pandemonium swept Mason Temple as people came to their feet — applauding, cheering, yelling, crying.” Another minister observes, “When he sat down, he was just crying. He sure was.” Preachers sometimes cried, but he had never seen King do it. “This time it seemed like he was just saying, ‘Goodbye, I hate to leave.’”