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A Crucifixion in Memphis: The King Assassination and What We Know Now

As Easter week bleeds into the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, a minister finds parallels between Calvary and a balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Dr. Martin Luther King pulls up a cross that was burned on his lawn while his son looks on, Atlanta, Georgia. April 27, 1960. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-111157]
Photo Credit: World-Telegram | Library of Congress



As a Christian minister, I have always been moved by John 14:12.

"Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father."

I believe the works Jesus speaks of, are literally that: works, as in hard work and sacrifice for others. If we are to be emulative of Christ, then we must do thework. Believing in Him, and emulating his work for others than our individual selves, makes us eligible to fulfill His promise of doing even greater works than His own.

No matter our station in life, each of us is can fulfill that promise. Whether we are rich or poor, famous or known by just a few, each of us can believe and do great works for others. My mother was not famous, but when I eulogized her on Ash Wednesday two years ago, I described her as one who believed and, therefore, did greater works for others.

Of course, believing, serving, loving and working on behalf of others as Jesus did can have a price.

As we observe Easter, and the crucifixion of three -- the two unknown men on Calvary and the one well-known man, Jesus himself -- we should also reflect and return to a more recent Calvary, in fact the Calvary of our generation -- Memphis, Tenn. -- where 45 years ago three crucifixions also occurred -- two unknown men, one well-known.

On Thursday, Feb. 1, 1968, Echol Cole and Robert Walker were on their jobs, picking up trash in Memphis, and riding the trash truck on the outside using handholds and footrests, until a torrential rain began. Historian Taylor Branch  writes that "city rules barred shelter stops in residential neighborhoods -- after citizen complaints about unsightly 'picnics' by the Negro sanitation workers." So Cole and Walker had no choice but to seek shelter near the very mouth of the truck's trash compactor. Somehow, the compactor motor was triggered, and the two men were caught and crushed to death.

Because the city would not allow Memphis sanitation workers to organize a union, there were no death or survivor benefits following the two tragic deaths.

On Sunday, Feb. 4, 1968, three days later, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached one of his most famous sermons,  "The Drum Major Instinct," at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church. Dr. King, likened his own struggle to that of Christ: "They called him a rabble-rouser. They called him a troublemaker. They said he was an agitator."

And Dr. King spoke of his own death and what he wanted said at his funeral. 

"If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter."

But in that sermon, Dr. King also told the story of the misunderstanding between Jesus and His disciples as to what is greatness. Dr. King agreed with Jesus' that greatness is service -- works in service of others -- and it was his own drum major instinct to serve that would lead him to Memphis despite misunderstandings between Dr. King's and his own disciples about the importance of Memphis.

Two days after that historic sermon, Dr. King led Clergy And Laity Concerned About Vietnam in a prayer vigil at Arlington National Cemetery. As he prayed, Rabbi Abraham Heschel perhaps foreshadowed the days to come as he echoed Jesus's cry on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"