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

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?" 

On Feb. 12, 1968, 1,300 black sanitation workers went on strike with the support of AFSCME, the very union they sought to organize, the NAACP, and Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, represented by the Rev. James Lawson. For weeks, all-night vigils and marches in Memphis were met with police violence and mace, as the movement called for a boycott of downtown businesses.

On March 18, 1968, after barnstorming the country to raise money for the Poor People's Campaign, Dr. King spoke at Memphis' Mason Temple and called for a march in Memphis four days later. But an unusual snow storm fell on the day the march was scheduled. Dr. King used the postponement to attend to other matters, including pleading with the media to exclude his name from any speculation about a presidential run.

The march was back on in Memphis on March 28, and what began as a peaceful march of thousands descended into chaos and looting. Dr. King had to be sped away for his own safety to an uptown hotel. The next day, the national media declared that nonviolence was a failure, and had met its end. Also, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover planted a news story that Dr. King "led the marchers to violence, and when the violence broke out, King disappeared ... to the plush Holiday Inn Motel, white owned, operated, and almost exclusively, white patronized ... instead of the fine Hotel Lorraine in Memphis ... owned and patronized exclusively by Negroes."

Meanwhile, the Memphis police and FBI had already thoroughly infiltrated the Memphis movement with undercover agents.

Dr. King vowed to return to lead another march in Memphis to prove nonviolence was still a viable strategy over the objections of some of his own disciples. In a Last Supper-like meeting with his staff, Dr. King declared that Memphis was the Poor People's Campaign "in miniature."

On March 31, Dr. King preached his final sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. That same night, President Johnson announced on national television that he would not seek re-election -- a decision that Dr. King's resistance to the Vietnam War greatly influenced.

On April 3, Dr. King returned to Memphis as Army intelligence agents trailed his every move, as they pursued his family for generations, much in the manner Herod pursued Jesus and His family from his birth.

Dr. King spoke at Mason Temple that night, and invoked God's words to Moses as he looked down from Mount Nebo: "I might not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the promised land."

The next day, Dr. King joined those two Memphis garbage workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, in glory. And although Coretta Scott King would finish the march after her husband's death and the strike would be settled, there are still more works to perform even in Memphis.

The Rev. Al Sharpton said this Easter Weekend that "we don't need a martyrdom complex, but rather a resurrection complex." As Jesus ignored the stench of Lazarus' tomb to resurrect Lazarus on his way to his own death and resurrection, Dr. King ignored the stench of Memphis garbage and the low regard the average person has for sanitation workers to bring life to a movement that ultimately cost him his own.

As AFSCME calls us back to Memphis this week to remember the strike and to remember the martyrdom of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, and as we begin to plan for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, the opportunity exists for us to believe in the movement Dr. King shepherded, and to continue the works he did on behalf of others. May our works be greater.

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