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MLK Papers: Words That Changed a Nation

Aired February 25, 2007 - 14:00   ET


GOV. GEORGE WALLACE, ALABAMA: Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever!


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): When one woman refused to budge, he wrote.

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: "There is a new Negro in the South."

O'BRIEN: Jailed, standing up to justice, he wrote.

KING: "We find it difficult to wait."


KING: I accept the Nobel...


O'BRIEN: When the world took notice, he wrote.

KING: "I still believe we shall overcome."

O'BRIEN: Faced with constant fear and even death, he wrote.

KING: "I am not afraid of the word tension."

O'BRIEN: His writings that challenged a people, his words that changed a nation.

(on camera): Behind these bars, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote the now famous "Letter From Birmingham Jail" amid the struggle and strife of the Civil Rights movement. King was an accidental leader. He was young and chosen by circumstance, yet already prepared in demeanor and intellect, in conscience and in courage.

The King family allowed CNN special access to its collection of Dr. King's private papers, and it's those words that will be our guide over this next hour in his journey from Birmingham and Selma to the final stop in Memphis, a journey that began with one woman on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

KING: "After one has discovered what he is called for, he should set out to do it with all of the power that he has in his system. Do it as if God almighty ordained you at this particular moment in history to do it."

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Those were the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., just turned 25, in his first sermon in 1954 in Montgomery, Alabama.

(on camera): This is the actual sermon, written on four pages, back and front, of lined notebook paper in Dr. King's on handwriting. It's preserved here at the library for Morehouse College, the start of what is literally a treasure of Dr. King's thinking at the critical moments in Civil Rights history.

(voice-over): For King, the pivotal moment came the next year, when Rosa Parks -- on the left -- was arrested on a Montgomery bus. This is her lawyer, Fred Gray, only 25 himself, with the bus seating chart.

FRED GRAY, CIVIL RIGHTS LAWYER: There was a sort of unwritten understanding that the first 10 seats, all those seats, were basically reserved for whites. Mrs. Parks, I believe, was sitting -- if I'm not mistaken, she was sitting here.

O'BRIEN: The driver asked blacks in that row to give up their seats to a white man.

GRAY: Everybody got up but Ms. Parks. And she didn't and was arrested.

O'BRIEN: Dr. King was asked to be spokesman for a high-risk protest, a bus boycott. His longtime aide, Andrew Young.

ANDREW YOUNG, FORMER KING AIDE: He was new in the community and he had no enemies -- yet -- and so he was sort of a consensus candidate just because he was young and fresh, and it was clear that he was smart.

O'BRIEN: The boycott began the day Rosa Parks went on trial. Fred Gray rose early.

GRAY: We saw the bus. None of our people were on the buses.

O'BRIEN: That night, Martin Luther King addressed the first of many mass meetings. These words come from this outline for the protest, words that would define the Civil Rights movement.

O'BRIEN: "This is a movement of passive resistance, emphasis on non-violence in a struggle for justice."

GRAY: That really was Dr. King's philosophy. And he was the non-violent person who really injected it into the movement.

O'BRIEN: King became a lightning rod for hatred. One night early in '56, his phone rang. In this sermon, King admits fear and a rare moment of weakness. KING: "An angry voice said, Listen, nigger, we've taken all we want from you. Before next week, you'll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery. I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally, I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up."

O'BRIEN: Then, King said, he felt God's presence.

KING: "I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying, Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, and God will be at your side forever. I was ready to face anything."

O'BRIEN: Three nights later, King's house was bombed. Blacks gathered, bristling with anger.

GRAY: Once he found out that his family was safe, he simply went out, talked to the crowd and told them to go home. And they went.

O'BRIEN: From that night on, Martin Luther King lived under the shadow of death.

GRAY: Dr. King made it rather clear that the cause that we were fighting for was not only worth living for but it was worth dying for, if need be.

O'BRIEN: Still, the blacks of Montgomery stayed off the buses and walked or shared rides for more than a year. Former journalist Inez Baskin.

INEZ BASKIN, FORMER JOURNALIST: How are they going to get to their jobs? They had children to feed. They had rent to pay. But they were not getting on that bus.

O'BRIEN: King, a man who found poetry and words of protest, spoke of the power of non-violence in New York that spring.

KING: "There is a new Negro in the South with a new sense of dignity and destiny. The story of Montgomery is the story of 50,000 Negroes who are tired of injustice and oppression and who are willing to substitute tired feet for tired souls and walk and walk until the walls of injustice are crushed by the battering rams of historical necessity. This is the new Negro."

O'BRIEN: Andrew Young met King that year for the first time and came to Montgomery for a visit. He wanted to learn about the boycott. King wanted to talk about his newborn daughter.

YOUNG: I frankly was frustrated by that first meeting, but that's the way he was. He was never -- unless he was on the stage, he wasn't a leader, he was just a good guy.

O'BRIEN: Fred Gray carried a desegregation lawsuit all the way to the Supreme Court, and in the winter of 1956, won.


KING: We came to see that, in the long run, it is more honorable to walk in dignity than ride in humiliation.


O'BRIEN: People were given a checklist on how to behave on the bus the first day back.

KING: "If cursed, do not curse back. If struck, do not strike back. If you feel you cannot take it, walk for another week or two."

O'BRIEN: The next morning, King was among the first blacks to get back on a bus. He's sitting here behind fellow minister Ralph David Abernathy. The woman beside Abernathy, reporter Inez Baskin.

BASKIN: There's Dr. King. That's me.

O'BRIEN: She says she could see in King's face a man looking ahead to what was yet to come.

BASKIN: You have to look at his expression, it wasn't over. But we have come this far.

O'BRIEN: Next, violence awaited in Birmingham.





O'BRIEN: Birmingham, Alabama, racism's ground zero.

MCKINSTRY: We had earned the nickname "Bombing-ham." Black homes were being bombed. Black life was cheap.


GOV. GEORGE WALLACE, ALABAMA: Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!

KING: I'm sorry, Mr. Wallace. God has placed the responsibility a my shoulders!


O'BRIEN: In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King joined the effort to desegregate businesses in Birmingham. Andrew Young went with him.

YOUNG: Going to Birmingham was to him the possibility of an imminent death.

O'BRIEN (on camera): He was literally afraid for his life.

YOUNG: Well, yes, but for good reason. But he kept getting pushed into these things. O'BRIEN (voice-over): Included in Dr. King's prize collection of writings are several pages of the plan he had his staff draw up, Project C for confrontation. Dr. King's chief strategist, Wyatt Walker, wrote Project C.

DR. WYATT TEE WALKER, KING'S FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF: We used code words to kind of obscure what we were getting ready to do.

O'BRIEN: Dr. King's code name was Jack Kennedy. Birmingham became Johannesberg. Non-violent action was called a baptismal service.

WALKER: The racist element in the police department would create a crisis or confrontation, and so we knew that we wouldn't be in Birmingham long before that would happen.

O'BRIEN: Dr. King was arrested for marching without a permit. And for his defiance, solitary confinement. A diary he kept while in jail in Georgia a year earlier reveals how his thoughts would turn to his family.

KING: "God blessed me with a great and wonderful wife. I have never quite adjusted to bringing my children up under such inexplicable conditions."

O'BRIEN: By 1963, Dr. King had been arrested several times.


KING: Nobody with any sense likes to go to jail. But if he puts you in jail, you go in that jail and transform it from a dungeon of shame to a haven of freedom and dignity!


O'BRIEN: Despite his own words, the same diary shows King found incarceration draining.

KING: "Jail is almost like being dead while one still lives. It is bare existence -- cold, cruel, degenerating."

O'BRIEN: In his solitary confinement, Dr. King read a newspaper article in which eight white clergymen called his demonstrations, quote, "unwise and untimely."

CLARENCE JONES, FORMER KING ATTORNEY: He was very agitated. He says, We've got to write a response. I've got to write a response.

O'BRIEN: Clarence Jones was Dr. King's attorney.

JONES: The only paper he had until I got there was, you know, the edges of newspaper.

O'BRIEN: Under his shirt, Jones smuggled paper past the guards.

JONES: The drill was I that would bring blank paper in and he would write on it, and I would bring it out.

O'BRIEN: The sheets of paper were passed on to Wyatt Walker, who helped transcribe them.

WALKER: I was the only one on the Birmingham scene who was familiar with Dr. King's chicken-scratch writing.

O'BRIEN: Dr. King, the consummate writer, made handwritten revisions to this copy of the famous "Letter From Birmingham Jail."

KING: "When you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters"...

YOUNG: He loved language. I mean, he was a poet.

KING: ... "when you have to concoct an answer for a 5-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean, then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."

O'BRIEN: You can see where he added the words "in agonizing pathos." They convey the deep sorrow racism caused King and his family.

JONES: That sort of catches the essence of having your sense of self-worth demeaned and diminished.

O'BRIEN: When the efforts to desegregate Birmingham stalled, the movement tried a new strategy. Teenagers were recruited to join the campaign.

MCKINSTRY, 16TH STREET BAPTIST CHURCH: Dr. King asked, How many of you are willing to go to jail for freedom?

O'BRIEN: Carolyn McKinstry remembers hearing Dr. King's call to action in the sanctuary of the 16th Street Baptist Church.


KING: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!


MCKINSTRY: He touched our spirits, made us want to get involved.

O'BRIEN: A major demonstration was planned for May 2. Dr. Dorothy Cotton (ph) helped recruit teenagers.

DOROTHY COTTON, ACTIVIST: An aim was to really fill the jails, if we could. You can see them getting on the paddy wagons, going to jail. (SINGING) I go to jail if the spirit says jail. I go to jail if the spirit says jail. If the spirit says jail, I'll go to jail, oh, Lord. I go to jail if -- and that (INAUDIBLE) you can actually see them singing the song.

O'BRIEN: The next day, May 3. YOUNG: Every high school closed down, and students from all around the city started marching toward downtown.

COTTON: We ended up with thousands of children. The jails were full, so they ended up being in the fairgrounds.

MCKINSTRY: We walked out of my local high school, and we were confronted with those water hoses and those dogs and the tanks.

O'BRIEN: Carolyn McKinstry was just 14 years old. A fire hose hammered her up against a storefront window.

MCKINSTRY: That hose hurt. We were pinned against the building. We couldn't move. Later on, I learned that part of my hair had been sort of wiped out from the pressure of the hose.

O'BRIEN: These images of brutality wakened the American conscience.

WALKER: I was always aware that we had to do something that would be attractive to the press.

YOUNG: There would be no news until there was a major crisis of some sort.

O'BRIEN: A week later, businessmen agreed to integrate their stores. But the fight for Birmingham was far from over.


KING: I have a dream.


O'BRIEN: Why were these words...


KING: I have a dream today!


O'BRIEN: Why were these historic words almost left unspoken?



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have a dream...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have a dream...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have a dream...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have a dream...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... that my four children...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... will one day live in a nation...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... where they will not be judged by the color of their skin...



KING: ... but by the content of their character! I have a dream today!


O'BRIEN: Dr. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech at the march on Washington on August 28, 1963, is one of the most important in human history.

YOUNG: It has become the defining moment of the human rights movement of our time. They know it in Russia. They know it in South Africa. They know it in China.

O'BRIEN: But the words "I have a dream" almost didn't make it into the speech.

WALKER: The inner circle of Dr. King felt the "I have a dream" portion was hackneyed and trite because he'd used it so many times in other cities.

O'BRIEN: Dr. King had been writing about this dream for decades. His inspiration can be traced back to these books in Dr. King's private library. In his well-worn copy of "The Christ of the American Road," Dr. King underlined...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "America is a dream unfulfilled, a place where race and birth and color are transcended by the fact of a common brotherhood."

O'BRIEN: In this book, "Horns and Halos," he pencils this note.

KING: "A dream that did not come true."

O'BRIEN: Dr. King makes this message his own in the late '50s. In his speech, "Shattered Dreams," he advises a crowd...

KING: "You must honestly confront your shattered dream."

O'BRIEN: In the months before the march on Washington, Dr. King starts to focus on a positive dream, a dream that could be realized through the Civil Rights movement. He toys with this idea in an address to the National Press Club. But before the speech, he crosses out the paragraph.

The night before the march, Dr. King's inner circle wants a new message. WALKER: I remember very vividly Andy Young and I going up and down the steps of the Bullitt (ph) Hotel, taking drafts of what we thought should be a new climax.

O'BRIEN: Staying up into the early morning hours, they write and rewrite the speech Dr. King wanted to be a kind of Gettysburg Address. Then he tells them...

JONES: Thank you for your counsel. Thank you for your suggestions and all your help. I'm going upstairs to counsel with the Lord.

O'BRIEN: This was a march even the president had opposed at the start. A few months earlier, President Kennedy called leaders to the White House, trying to get them to cancel the march, worried it could become violent and derail his Civil Rights bill.

REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), GEORGIA: We had a meeting at my house with President Kennedy. A. Fuller Randolph (ph), one of the black leaders, we called the dean of black leadership, spoke up in his baritone voice. He says something like, Mr. President, the black (INAUDIBLE) are restless and we're going to march on Washington. And you can tell by the very body language of President Kennedy he didn't like what he heard.

O'BRIEN: When the march seemed inevitable, the president came around.

LEWIS: But just in case things didn't go well, they had some of the military on standby outside of Washington, ordered all the liquor stores to be closed.

O'BRIEN: The administration had a secret plan. They put two FBI agents near the PA system, ready to pull the plug if they didn't like what they heard. John Lewis had to tone down his speech, rewriting it that very afternoon. And as Dr. King listened to the others speak, he revised his own speech. No one knows why, but activist Dorothy Cotton shared with me her theory, a story she once told Dr. King.

COTTON: And I was telling him, I wish you could have been here last night and that you could have heard this girl talking to this group of folk, so giving, so loving, saying all she wanted was her little girl to be able to play with this white girl, you know, so this very blond, blue-eyed girl standing there saying this to these black folk. That was all she -- she just had a dream. And I have always felt that somehow, that stuck with him.

O'BRIEN: The day of the march, Dr. King takes this only known copy of his speech, called "Normalcy -- never again," with him. Nowhere does it mention his dream.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have the pleasure to present to you Dr. Martin Luther King!


O'BRIEN: With the Lincoln Memorial behind him and facing a quarter of a million people, Dr. King delivers his speech.

JONES: I was standing up and to the side.


KING: Now is the time...


JONES: And after he went through all this stuff about what we're here today (INAUDIBLE) and so forth and so forth, he paused. And what I did see him do...


KING: I still have a dream.


JONES: He turned the text over. He grabbed the podium. And he leaned back and looked out.


KING: I have a dream.


WALKER: I was out in the crowd somewhere, and when he swung into "I have a dream," I said, Oh, "expletive deleted." After all that work that night before, up and down the steps, and then he went on into the "I have a dream" section.


KING: I have a dream!


LEWIS: He transformed those marble steps into a modern-day (ph) pulpit.

JONES: And I said to whoever that person sitting next to me was, I said, The people here today, they don't know it, but they're about ready to go to church.


KING: Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last!


O'BRIEN: In two weeks, the dream would become a nightmare.


MCKINSTRY: You came to church. You had friends who by the afternoon were dead.



O'BRIEN (voice-over): Six years before his Birmingham campaign, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote this sermon titled "Loving Your Enemies."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "Throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children and we will still love you. We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. We will win our freedom."

O'BRIEN: Sunday morning, September 15th, 1963.

CAROLYN MCKINSTRY, 16TH STREET BAPTIST CHURCH: The phone was ringing in the church office. There was a male caller on the other end who said three minutes. And as quickly as he said that, he hung up.

O'BRIEN: At the 16th Street Baptist Church, a youth volunteer Carolyn McKinstry was preparing for service.

MCKINSTRY: I paused at the doorway, spoke to the girls that were there. Addie (ph) and Cynthia and Denise and Carol. And didn't linger there. I think they were just talking and primping, doing what girls do, combing hair. And Addie is about to tie Denise's sash.

O'BRIEN: Seconds later, the unimaginable. A bomb planted by the Ku Klux Klan exploded outside the bathroom window.

MCKINSTRY: It was just kind of chaos. Police immediately surrounded the building.

O'BRIEN: Birmingham had once again become Bombingham.

MCKINSTRY: This was the first point at which I really realized that my parents were powerless to protect me. You came to church, you had friends who by the afternoon were dead.

O'BRIEN: The lives of four little girls stopped at 10:22 a.m.

(on camera): So this bombing suddenly made everybody in the nation wake up.

MCKINSTRY: It was the only one that resulted in the death of four people, the death of four little girls here at our church.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Andrew Young recalled his own anguish after hearing the news.

YOUNG: I was so despondent and depressed. We knew that church. That church was where we had meetings.

O'BRIEN: King used the church's pulpit to recruit participants in the struggle for change in Birmingham. In the initial plan for the campaign known as Project Confrontation, the last line on one page reads, "Pray that we can come out alive."

YOUNG: Martin said, you know, when you go to Birmingham, somebody is not going to come out.

O'BRIEN: But Dr. King didn't anticipate innocent children becoming the movement's martyrs.

YOUNG: Most of those days he was in a deep depression. The heaviest burden of leadership is the death of your followers.

DR. WYATT TEE WALKER, KING'S FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF: Martin felt that he had to go to Birmingham after that because people would blame him.

MCKINSTRY: There were many people that did not want him to come back. People were angry because they felt that he had come in and created trouble for the people that had to live here.

O'BRIEN: Dr. King presided over the funeral of three of the children.

YOUNG: He was a very disciplined preacher.

KING: God has spoken to me.

YOUNG: And so if he was going to talk for 15 or 20 minutes, he spent 15 or 20 hours working on it. But that's when you have a whole week. He had a couple of days between the time of the bombing and the time of the memorial service, the funeral service.

O'BRIEN: Before delivering the eulogy for the girls, he wrote down some final thoughts.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "The innocent blood of these precious children of God say to each of us we must substitute courage for caution."

CLARENCE JONES, FORMER KING ATTORNEY: It was one of the few vivid times, one of the times where I observed tears and crying as he was speaking.

O'BRIEN: When faced with such despair, Dr. King relied heavily on his faith.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "In spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not become bitter. Nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers."

YOUNG: Martin would say death is but a comma that leads us into a new eternal life. And that allows the spirit to escape from the body. JONES: His civil disobedience was predicated on a profound belief that more powerful than the march of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come. Justice is an idea whose time has come.

O'BRIEN: Two months after the Birmingham bombing, another funeral. That of John F. Kennedy. And a new president, Lyndon Johnson, who would make civil rights his priority in honor of Kennedy.

(on camera): That next summer with Martin Luther King looking over his shoulder, President Johnson signed into law the first major civil rights act in nearly a century. Banning segregation in public places, forbidding bias in job hiring.

It would stand as a memorial to the four young girls who died here. And everybody else whose sacrifices helped awaken the conscience of a nation.

(voice-over): The road would lead to Selma and bloody Sunday.


O'BRIEN: While blacks were being reviled in the South, the world was taking notice of Dr. Martin Luther King's peaceful protest movement. "Time Magazine" declared King man of the year in 1963. And in late 1964, the Nobel Peace Prize.

(on camera): When he heard he won, what was that reaction like?

YOUNG: Coretta got the call. And Coretta woke him up. And he said he thought he was dreaming.

DR. DOROTHY COTTON, SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP COUNCIL: The day the announce many came down, we were running up and down the sidewalk there on Auburn Avenue saying we won, we knew he had been nominated. We won the Nobel Prize.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): The acceptance speech was considered at the time his most important.

(on camera): When kind of pressure to get it right? I mean, you see in the documents, you know, draft after draft ...

YOUNG: He usually went off by himself for three or four days to do his writing. He was a poet. And poets work on speeches until every little syllable is right.

KING: I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace ...

REP. JOHN LEWIS, (D) GA: I think his heart, his soul, his gut came out in his speech.

KING: I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered.

WALKER: He didn't take it as a personal achievement. He accepted it for the people, many of whose names were never known.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): In a speech back in Atlanta, Dr. King acknowledged that winning the Nobel was one of the highest honors of his life.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "I must confess that I have enjoyed being on the mountaintop. But something reminds me that the valley calls me in spite of all of its agonies, dangers and frustrating moments. I must return to the valley."

LEWIS: Dr. King spoke with passion. He was so convincing. So when you heard him use a line like that, or some other line, you were prepared to follow him.

O'BRIEN: Less than a week after that dinner the fight for the right to vote put Dr. King back on the frontlines. This time in racially torn Selma, Alabama.

LEWIS: He believed in the power of the vote. He believed that the vote was precious, almost sacred.

O'BRIEN: In just a few days' time more than 3,000 protesters were arrested. Including Dr. King. Jail time for him meant more work. So he wrote a to-do list to keep national attention focused on Selma.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "Item. Make personal call to President Johnson, urging him to intervene in some way. Item. Call Sammy Davis and ask him to do a Sunday benefit in Atlanta. I find that all of these fellows respond better when I am in jail or a crisis."

O'BRIEN (on camera): I like the last part of that says "Everyone responds better when I am in jail or I'm in a crisis." Almost like there's leverage.

YOUNG: Well, the truth of it is nobody cared about us. The news has to emotional to get to us. And there was nothing more emotional than Martin being in jail and then the fire hoses and the dogs.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): There was no letup in the violence. On February 18th, 1965, Alabama state troopers fatally shot 26-year-old Jimmy Lee Jackson in Marion, Alabama. He was trying to protect his mother.

Dr. King delivered a passionate and familiar message in Jackson's eulogy to all those who remained on the sidelines.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "He was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the Gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows. He was murdered by every negro who passively accepts the evil system of segregation."

O'BRIEN: Jimmy Lee Jackson's funeral sparked another Selma protest march days later. On the Edmund Pettis Bridge, Alabama police violently pushed the marchers back. It is what became known as bloody Sunday. John Lewis, seen here wearing a trench coat and backpack, was at the head of the march and was badly beaten.

LEWIS: The only thing I had in that backpack was two books. I thought we were going to be arrested and we would go to jail. So I wanted to have something to read.

O'BRIEN: Martin Luther King issued a call for the nation's ministers to come to Selma. Among those who answered, Unitarian Minister James Reeb from Boston. His first night in town, white men attacked him with a baseball bat. His skull was fractured.

Within 24 hours, Reeb was dead. In his eulogy, Dr. King said ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "We must work passionately and unrelentingly to make the American dream a reality."

O'BRIEN: Through all of the sacrifices in Selma came a landmark victory. An invitation from the White House for Dr. King to attend the signing of the Voters' Rights Act of 1965. Only a week after bloody Sunday, President Johnson appealed to Congress to pass the bill in a nationally televised address.

LEWIS: I remember so well sitting with him on the night of March 15th, 1965, as he listened and watched Lyndon Johnson. Before he concluded that speech, he said ...

LYNDON JOHNSON, THEN U.S. PRESIDENT: And we shall overcome.

LEWIS: I looked back at Dr. King and I saw tears coming down his face. He was just crying. He was so moved.

O'BRIEN: Ahead, Memphis. The last speech. And the last stop.


O'BRIEN: In 1968, black garbage workers went on strike over low wages in Memphis, Tennessee.

REV. BILLY KYLES, CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER: Many of them could work the whole month and still qualify for welfare. That's how low their wages were. One of them said to me, Reverend Kyles, I'm so tired of hand-me-downs, I haven't had a coat to fit me since I have been a grown man.

O'BRIEN: Garbage piled up. When talks broke down, police maced black workers in the street.

By now, Dr. King had come to believe that bigotry imposed black poverty and poverty perpetuated inequality. He was planning another march on Washington, a poor people's campaign. Reverend Billy Kyles asked King to come to Memphis first. King's staff opposed it.

KYLES: So Martin got word of it and said wait a minute, no, no, no. The garbage men? These are the folk we are talking about, the working poor. We have got to go to Memphis.

O'BRIEN: King came, made a speech, and agreed to lead a protest march.

But it all fell apart when black youth began breaking store windows. Police attacked with billy clubs and tear gas. King had failed to prevent what he had always preached against. Violence.

KYLES: He said we have got to have a peaceful march in Memphis.

O'BRIEN: King returned on April 3rd, 1968, staying at the Lorraine Motel. Ever since his seminary days, Dr. King had been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, whose nonviolent resistance ended a century of British rule in India. In the travel case King brought with him was this quote on a well-worn scrap of paper.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "Gandhi speaks for us. 'In the midst of death, life persists, in the midst of darkness, light persists.'"

O'BRIEN: Then King wrote ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "We are today in the midst of death and darkness. We can strengthen life and live by our personal acts by saying no to violence. By saying yes to life.

O'BRIEN: That night, Dr. King spoke to an overflow crowd at a black church.

KYLES: But he talked about death more than I had ever heard him talk about at any one given.

KING: Well, I don't know what will happen now. We have got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now. Because I have been to the mountaintop.

O'BRIEN: Andrew Young told me it was a speech Dr. King often made when times were dangerous.

YOUNG: Because he had done it before, and we had gone on to the next place, I wasn't really taking it serious. It was just a great speech. But I never thought I was listening to his last speech.

KING: So I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

KYLES: He was just (inaudible). And we had to actually help him to his seat. He gave it all. And somehow I guess he knew that would be his last hoorah.

O'BRIEN: The next day, April 4th, Andrew Young walked into King's room right into a pillow fight.

YOUNG: He grabbed the pillow off the bad and threw the pillow at me. He was more silly and goofy and playful than I had ever seen him.

O'BRIEN: That evening, King was heading to dinner at the home of Reverend Kyles.

KYLES: I said guys, come on. Let's go.

O'BRIEN: In a boarding house bathroom across the street, a rifle poked out as Dr. King walked on to the motel balcony.

KYLES: Before I could get to the stairs, the shot rang out. Kapow!

YOUNG: The shot rang out which I thought was a firecracker. When I looked up there and didn't see him, I thought he was clowning again. You know, and until I ran upstairs and saw, you know, him laying in a pool of blood.

KYLES: Blood was everywhere. The police were coming. I hollered to them. Call an ambulance on your police radio. Dr. King has been shot.

And they said where did the shot come from? So there is a famous picture pointing to the building across the street. I took a spread from one of the beds and covered him from his neck down. He never spoke a word.

O'BRIEN: Martin Luther King Jr., dead at the age of 39. Yet, his legacy and his dream would live on to end centuries of separation, to blur the barriers of color, to offer equal rights to all.

YOUNG: His spirit has never left us.

O'BRIEN (on camera): Is it something you think about a lot? Or is it something you don't think about at all n.

YOUNG: Something I think about all the time.

O'BRIEN: Really? In what way?

YOUNG: Well, everything I do, I have to put in the context -- into context of what we were committed to do.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Left behind among Dr. King's papers that day, this sermon with a lasting thought.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "The major problem of life is learning how to handle the costly interruptions. The door that slams shut, the plan that got sidetracked, the marriage that failed. Or that lovely poem that didn't get written because someone knocked on the door.

O'BRIEN (on camera): It is almost hard to imagine today the risks blacks had to face in the search for simple fairness and equality. This sculpture depicts the actual size of the police dogs that confronted children in this Birmingham Park.

Think of the courage of Dr. King and others who fought for basic human rights, many of which we take for granted today. Enduring bombings and beatings, jail and eventually death in the hopes of making the nation better for the rest of us today.


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