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The Day Martin Luther King Jr. Died

In the first episode of ‘Voices of the Movement,’ King's associates recount their memories of April 4, 1968.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Today marks the 51st anniversary of King’s assassination. And so, I’m going to to tell you the story of that day.

Now I know you may think you know this story already. After all, It’s been retold over and over again in newspapers, movies and books. There are probably even other podcasts telling this story today.

But, I’m going to let some of the people who were there tell you. The people who were closest to Martin Luther King Jr. Those who knew him, who argued with him, who followed him — and those who loved him.

This is the first episode in a special two-month ‘Cape Up’ series we’re calling “Voices of the Movement.”

Between sit-downs at a civil rights retreat in January in California and the Faith and Politics Institute’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama in March, I’ve been lucky enough to hear these stories firsthand.

What a privilege and a sincere honor it was to sit at the feet of giants.

To hear their memories of sacrifice and struggle, of hope and tragedy as they followed a young preacher in their collective quest to make America live up to its ideals.

Before we get to the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, let’s start with some background. If you know it already, stick with me.

In the spring of 1968, King led the SCLC. They were planning a march in Washington, D.C., and it would be for what was called the Poor People’s Campaign.

But in Memphis, Tenn., there were some sanitation workers who needed help. For years, they were working for little pay and in dangerous working conditions.

After two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death in garbage compactors, enough was enough. The sanitation men decided to strike.

And they were quickly met with resistance from local officials and police who often tear-gassed and beat the workers who participated in the marches.

King went to Memphis on March 28 for what was supposed to be a nonviolent march. But when young participants began to smash storefront windows, police in riot gear began violently pushing back, beating the strikers with nightsticks.

One person died; 50 more were injured. Hundreds more were arrested.

Andrew Young remembers having hesitations about going back to Memphis to try again.

ANDREW YOUNG: None of us on SCLC staff wanted to get involved in Memphis. We wanted to go on to Washington, which is what he said he wanted to do.