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Empowerment, if not a complete end to racism

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Martin Luther King came to town in March, invited by the Rev. James Lawson. He was supposed to give one speech, rally the workers and then leave. Memphis would be just a quick diversion from planning for the Poor People's campai...

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Martin Luther King came to town in March, invited by the Rev. James Lawson. He was supposed to give one speech, rally the workers and then leave. Memphis would be just a quick diversion from planning for the Poor People's campaign, through which he intended to lay the concerns of the American underclass -- black, white, brown -- before its government. But the diversion became a priority.

Because as he stood before that crowd in Mason Temple, it lifted him, brought him up from the valley of the shadow, buoyed him every time they talked back to him, shouting "Amen!"

And "Yes!"

King was in his glory. He told them it was a crime for the citizens of a wealthy nation to subsist on starvation wages. He told them America would go to hell for failing its humblest citizens. He told them to stand together.

And then he told them what he had not meant to tell them, what came to him unplanned in that moment of inspiration and heat. They should "escalate the struggle." They should mobilize a work stoppage. Not only the sanitation men, but the teachers, the students, the clerks, the clerics, the maids, the mechanics.

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They should shut Memphis down.

A march was set. And King, having floated the idea, had little choice but to lead it.

"King," historian Michael Honey says, "was always a strong supporter of the unions, from his teenager years when he had summer jobs and saw how the workers were treated when they didn't have unions -- including the white workers." He had spent years trying to get the AFL-CIO to "get off this Cold War bandwagon" and join organized labor in common cause with the civil rights movement. So Memphis seemed tailor made for him.

But Memphis had become poisonous and chaotic. There was garbage in the streets, sit-ins at City Hall, mass arrests. High school students picketed downtown. Rocks were thrown through the windows of businesses owned by Mayor Henry Loeb. There were trash fires. Gunfire.

Sanitation worker Ben Jones, 71, says, "I would tell my wife, when I leave home, 'I might be back and I might not.' Just lettin' her know, don't keep your hopes up."

You had to accept the reality of your own death, they say. Make your peace with it. "I didn't care," says Joe Warren, an 86-year-old retired sanitation worker. "And don't care now." His voice breaks and tears fall. "We worked hard," he gasps. "Some hard times."

The march was a disaster. Unlike demonstrators in the early days of the struggle, these had not been drilled in the discipline and tactics of nonviolent protest. They were excited and unruly, and when King arrived, they pushed and shoved, trying to get near him.

"The people were trampling over my feet," recalled King's best friend and confidante, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, "crowding over me. The atmosphere was just wrong."

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The march stepped off with King and his ministerial allies in the lead, flanked by sanitation workers. But young people soon elbowed their way to the front, shoving the sanitation workers aside. And then, from behind, came the sound of shattering glass.

The nation's premiere pacifist found himself at the head of a mob. He would not, he said, lead a violent march. Fearful for his safety, his men swept him away.

Behind them, police gassed and clubbed looters and bystanders alike. A black boy was seen stomping a white department store mannequin. "I wish this was a real live one," he cried.

A lone police officer surrounded by a menacing black mob was rescued by two black women in a car. An apparently unarmed black boy was shot to death at close range by police. Finally, National Guardsmen sealed off the black neighborhoods.

The media response was scathing. King, they said, had stirred up trouble and then run away. Even those sympathetic to King said the violence had damaged his credibility. And so he had to return, to lead a new march, to prove nonviolence was still a viable tool of social change. "Either the movement lives or dies in Memphis," he said.

KING'S RETURN

On April 3, he returned to a city under storm watch. The skies were menacing, the winds, punishing. Exhausted, King begged off speaking at the rally planned for that night and sent Abernathy in his place. He settled down to bed.

But Abernathy called. The hall was packed. The people wanted him, would accept no one else. So King dressed and went out into the storm. He spoke to them without notes as the wind howled and the rain drummed down. There was a valedictory quality to it as King recounted the triumphs and tragedies of the 13-year civil rights movement. He linked the sanitation workers' plight to that of the beaten and robbed man in the Bible who is rescued by the Good Samaritan.

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Then, the presentiment touched him and he spoke, one last time, of his own death.

"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life," he said. "Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over and I've seen" -- singing the word -- "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."

A spirit of defiance seemed to seize him now, and he roared in the face of his own demise. "So I'm happy tonight," he cried. "I'm not worried about anything! I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"

It came the very next evening. Standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, bantering with his men in the parking lot below, Martin Luther King was shot to death by a sniper.

"I was shocked," says sanitation worker Elmore Nickelberry, who, at 76, is still working. "I was mad. It hurt me. Even hurt me now, just to think about it and talk about it."

The strike was settled on April 16. The city recognized the union. The workers got a raise of 10 cents an hour, with another nickel an hour hike to take effect in September. The city agreed to make promotions on the basis of seniority and competence -- not race.

The men also won -- this had been a key sticking point -- the right to have union dues automatically deducted from their paychecks.

And 40 years later, you arrive in an era where a black man is running for president and, for all the myriad issues of race and identity with which he is forced to grapple, he is not required to prove himself a man. His manhood is a given. The men who helped make that possible are aged and dying and largely forgotten. And feeling, some of them say, cheated.

They say the union they won is not strong and receives little support from younger workers. The job benefits aren't great, either. Ben Jones says he's still working at 71 because he needs to pay off his house; when he retires, his only income will be from Social Security. Sanitation workers have no pension.

Nor did racism disappear. "Some of 'em still call you boy," says Nickelberry. "In some of 'ems eyes, you ain't nothin' but a boy. Still a boy."

But there is, he says, a difference: You don't have to take it anymore. "I tell 'em, 'I'm 76 years old. I'm old enough for your daddy. I ain't no boy. I am a man.' "

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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