An examination of the issues and struggles that civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. focused on prior to his assassination, and the impact his death had on the nation.
The Last Days of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING Jr.: I have dream today.
I must confess that that dream that I had that day has at many points turned into a nightmare.
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WILLIAMS: In the final months of his life, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was under siege. For more than a decade as this nation's preeminent civil rights leader, he had helped transform this country through nonviolent protest. He'd won the Nobel Peace Prize, but by 1968 some blacks had grown more militant, impatient. Stokely Carmichael was among them.
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Mr. STOKELY CARMICHAEL: We're going to shoot the cops who are shooting our black brothers in the back in this country.
Dr. KING: Well, I'm still convinced that their nonviolence has not ended.
I think it is just beginning.
Stop the bombing.
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WILLIAMS: King had started speaking out against the war in Vietnam, but some civil rights leaders saw that as a distraction. And after years of confronting segregation in the South, he had taken on tough national problems like poverty and economic injustice.
Mr. KING: (From file footage) It's much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee an annual income.
WILLIAMS: Though widely admired by millions, King was also detested and feared by many whites.
Crowd of People: (In unison, from file footage) We want King! We want King!
WILLIAMS: His life was in constant danger, but he never gave up.
Dr. KING: (From file footage) I can't lose hope because when you lose hope you die.
WILLIAMS: In 1968, King was planning a massive new march on Washington.
Dr. KING: (From file footage) We are coming to demand a bill of economic and social rights.
WILLIAMS: But his attention turned to Memphis, where sanitation workers, almost all of them black, had been on strike for weeks. The city was refusing to settle. At one point, police sprayed mace at the strikers.
What started as a labor issue became a civil rights cause, and King was asked to help. He came to Memphis, arriving late for a poorly organized march that turned tragically violent. Some demonstrators looted and broke windows. One black teenager was killed by police. It was Martin Luther King's worst nightmare, undermining his reputation for nonviolence and jeopardizing his plans for the Washington march just weeks later.
Dr. KING: (From file footage) And we must not allow the events of the day to cause us to let up. That would be a tragic error.
WILLIAMS: He decided to return to Memphis to stage another march, despite a court injunction against him, because he something to prove.
Dr. KING: (From file footage) I feel that we can still have a nonviolent demonstration and that we will have a nonviolent demonstration in Memphis.
WILLIAMS: That night, at a rally for the striking workers, King was defiant.
Dr. KING: (From file footage) So just as I say we aren't going to let any dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren't going to let any injunction turn us around!
WILLIAMS: But there was also something else in King's speech that night.
Dr. KING: (From file footage) Because I've been to the mountaintop.
WILLIAMS: It sounded like a premonition.
Dr. KING: (From file footage) And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.
WILLIAMS: The very next evening, standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Martin Luther King Jr. was hit by a single rifle shot fired from the window of a nearby boarding house.
Unidentified Anchor: (From file footage) Martin Luther King Jr. was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee, shot in the face as he stood alone on the balcony of his hotel room. He died in a hospital an hour later.
WILLIAMS: President Lyndon Johnson appealed for calm.
President LYNDON JOHNSON: (From file footage) I ask every citizen to reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King, who lived by nonviolence.
WILLIAMS: But there was violence, riots in more than 100 cities across the country. In Memphis, the peaceful march promised by Dr. King went on, just four days after his death, led by his widow. Coretta Scott King had always been by her husband's side; now she stood in his place.
King’s body was brought home to Atlanta to the church where he had preached. Among the thousands on hand for his funeral, Richard Nixon, soon to be elected on his platform of “Law and Order,” Jacqueline Kennedy, recently widowed herself, and Senator Robert Kennedy, just two months later, he was killed by an assassin.
It would take a long time for this country to heal from the wounds of 1968, a process some say continues today. It took a long time to fully appreciate what was lost when America lost Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. KING: (From file footage) Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.
The name of Martin Luther King Jr. is intertwined with the history of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States. King and his followers fought for the equal rights and equal justice that the U.S. Constitution promises for its citizens.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Reverend, Civil Rights Leader, Nobel Peace Prize, Stokely Carmichael, Non-Violence, Vietnam, Segregation, Poverty, Economic Injustices, March on Washington, Memphis, Tennessee, Sanitation Workers, Strike, Demonstration, Lorraine Motel, Jesse Jackson, Lyndon Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy, RFK, Riots, Chicago, Coretta Scott King, Richard Nixon, Jacqueline Kennedy, I Have a Dream