DATE April 4, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Taylor Branch, author of a three-volume biography of
Martin Luther King Jr., talks about the last three years of
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for tvworthwatching.com and
Broadcasting & Cable filling in for Terry Gross.
Forty years ago today, Martin Luther King was assassinated as he stood on the
balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. He was 39. He was in Memphis to
support the striking sanitation workers there as part of his poor people's
campaign. The day before he was killed, King made his final speech, in which
he referred to the good Samaritan story in the New Testament. In the story,
Jesus talks about a man who was accosted by thieves on Jericho Road, a
dangerous road for travelers. A Levite and a priest passing by on the other
side didn't stop to help the man. The person who did was a Samaritan, a
traveler from an ethnic group that was looked down upon.
Here's Martin Luther King in Memphis the day before he was killed.
(Soundbite of April 3, 1968, speech)
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING Jr.: You know, it's possible that the priest and the
Levite, looked over that man on the ground, and wondered if the robbers were
still around. Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was
merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and been hurt in
order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure.
And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the
Levite asked was, `If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?'
But then the good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question. `If I do
not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?' That's the question
before you tonight. Not, `if I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will
happen to my job?' Not, `If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will
happen to all the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every
week as a pastor?' The question is not, `If I stop to help this man in need,
what will happen to me?' The question is, `If I do not stop to help the
sanitation workers, what will happen to them?' That's the question.
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: Martin Luther King, recorded April 3rd, 1968.
We'll hear more later about the strike that brought King to Memphis. First,
we'll hear from Taylor Branch, the author of an acclaimed trilogy chronicling
King's life and the civil rights movement. The first volume, "Parting the
Waters," won a Pulitzer Prize. When Terry spoke with Branch in 1998, after
the publication of the second volume, they discussed King's frustration in
early 1963 when President Kennedy refused to issue an executive order
abolishing segregation. Terry asked Taylor Branch why King chose Birmingham,
Alabama, as the place to wage his struggle against segregation.
Mr. TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, I think he picked Birmingham, as they called it,
the "Pretoria of the South." It was an iron and steel town in Alabama that
had, for many decades, competed with Atlanta as the premiere city in the
South, and it was a tough town. It was very segregated. And it had, in its
police commissioner, Bull Conner, a kind of a symbol of opposition to
immigration, a symbol of segregation. And so they wanted to, in effect, take
on the toughest target, and say, `If we can crack segregation here, we can
crack it anywhere.'
Of course, the flipside of that is that it was the most daunting and fearful
target, and many people believed that they were quixotic in the extreme, to
the point of suicidal, to try to challenge segregation in its stronghold there
TERRY GROSS, host:
There were teenagers and children on the front lines of civil disobedience in
Birmingham. How did they get there?
Mr. BRANCH: They got there essentially by progressing down the age chain as
the movement in Birmingham sent many, many people to jail and tried to martial
the conscience of the country and failed. And after, I would say, about six
weeks of campaign there, when several thousand people had gone to jail and Dr.
King had written his famous letter from Birmingham jail, there was almost no
national response. And the movement, facing surrender--and they were actually
preparing for surrender to focus on voter registration instead of these
challenges to downtown segregation. They decided, out of desperation and, you
know, amidst ferocious debate, to lower the age; that they would accept
demonstrators down through junior high and even elementary school. So that
when the real breakthrough occurred in Birmingham in early May 1963, they had
children going to jail and being hauled off to jail and firehosed as young as
six and seven and eight years old in huge numbers.
GROSS: And you say that the reason why the children were firehosed and the
police dogs were turned on them was in part because the jails were already
full. So the idea was to like disburse them, get them out of there.
Mr. BRANCH: Yes, and that occurred time and time again. The irony here was
that the people who put Bull Conner and his police commanders, who used the
fire hoses and the dogs, really saw themselves as doing something that was
charitable, or at least the most humane way. They assumed that they could
frighten the children away. When they heard that, out of the church door for
that day's demonstrations were going to be not college students or high school
students, but elementary school students, and very young ones, they assumed
they could frighten them away with the hoses and the dogs as a way of keeping
them out of jail.
But of course what they didn't reckon on was that the spirit of the movement
had grown so strong by that point that when the kids were confronted with
these big policemen and the dogs, they just kept right on marching; and the
authorities then turned the dogs and the fire hoses loose, which made for
riveting television and pictures on national television, and finally did kind
of melt the heart, or rivet a national audience to the point that it was the
big breakthrough in the civil rights movement, after which it was impossible
for it to recede without making some gains, I don't think.
BIANCULLI: Taylor Branch, speaking with Terry Gross in 1998.
Two years after King's Birmingham campaign, he went to Selma, Alabama, to lead
the march to Montgomery in support of the Voting Rights Act. The march was
chronicled in the final volume of Branch's trilogy on Martin Luther King, "At
Canaan's Edge." Branch writes, quote, "Selma will engage the world's
conscience, strain the embattled civil right coalition and embroil King in
negotiations with all three branches of the government." Unquote.
Terry spoke with Terry Branch again in 2006.
GROSS: What was the reason for planning the march from Selma to Montgomery?
Mr. BRANCH: It was to win the right to vote for black people in Alabama,
which was a plan that had come to King--of course, the movement had been
struggling for the right to vote from the very beginning in the 1950s in many
forms, including Freedom Summer in Mississippi--but this particular plan came
to King from two young people on his staff, Jim Bevel and Diane Nash, who
basically stayed up all night on the night of the Birmingham church bombing in
1963, crying and wringing their hands over the death of these four children
and vowing that by morning they would come up with a plan to answer it on
their own, as citizens. And they came up with a plan to try to paralyze the
state of Alabama with a nonviolent army until it granted the right for black
people to vote. And that was essentially the blueprint for the Selma
GROSS: What happened on the first attempt to make that march, in March of
Mr. BRANCH: March 7th, 1965, 600 black people from Selma and surrounding
rural counties started to march 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, to present
a petition to George Wallace. This was after two months of demonstrations in
Selma. And they got across the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River
and were blocked on the other side by Alabama state troopers and mounted kind
of sheriff's posse men, who drove them back in a cloud of tear gas and
truncheons and beat them across the bridge in what became known as Bloody
Sunday and caused a crisis in national politics, but certainly in the civil
GROSS: Now, you write that Governor Wallace and his deputies debated a
suggestion to let the march go forward unmolested, and basically this was a
scheme to set a mousetrap for Martin Luther King. What was the trap they were
thinking of setting?
Mr. BRANCH: The mousetrap option was simply to bluff like they were going to
block the march, and then let it go through and open the highway and let them
go, because Wallace's people knew that between Selma and Montgomery there was
54 miles of some of the most forbidding country for black people in America,
including Lowndes County, which lay between Selma and Montgomery, where no
black person had voted in the 20th century even though they were some 70
percent of the county population, and that it was a county notorious for
lynching and brutality. And they thought that the marchers would not be
capable of marching 54 miles and that, especially if they thought they were
going to be blocked, they wouldn't be provisioned. And their plan was to open
the road but then not let anybody on the road to resupply them and essentially
maroon them out in hostile Klan country and calculate that they would then
limp back into Selma in failure. But they ultimately rejected that plan.
GROSS: But on a subsequent attempt to make this march, the troops kind of
cleared the way for King and the marchers to go, and King didn't know what to
make of that and he didn't know what to do. What was this about?
Mr. BRANCH: Well, on the night of Bloody Sunday, March 7th, King put out a
nationwide call for people to come and try to march again so as violence
couldn't stop the movement. And only two days later, they made the second
attempt that you're referring to, but by then there were hundreds, and
hundreds of people had come from all over America on almost no notice. And so
there was a whole host of people. Now it's an integrated group of several
thousand people, with King at its lead, and the federal government has in the
meantime issued an injunction ordering King not to march until the federal
government held a hearing and a court held a hearing over whether or not
should be a protected activity and what the rights of the state of Alabama
were and what the duties of the federal government were.
And so the federal government privately interceded with King, telling him not
to march. People in the movement felt they had to march. There were
tremendous rivalries. People were at one another's throats about whether they
should march, federal government or not. And King faced very difficult
decisions all night about what to do, and of course nobody knew what Governor
Wallace was going to do, whether he was going to try to repress this march as
well or not. But ultimately he did order the troopers blocking the march when
this host went forward, which was an integrated host with a lot of prominent
politicians as well as clergy and students, and they opened the march.
And King went across the bridge far enough to say that he had marched, and a
little past where they were, but then when they opened the way, he turned
around and went back. And some people lost faith in King permanently, but it
was about a very fundamental issue, which was: What is the best political
strategy for this movement to keep going and enact what became the Voting
Rights Act of 1965? And King felt that by marching halfway and back, he was
basically doing the best he could to preserve the momentum of his movement but
also his relationship with the federal government, which was going to have to
enact this law and...
GROSS: So was King more afraid of what the troopers had in store for him, or
of the injunction from the federal government against the march?
Mr. BRANCH: He was afraid of losing his alliance with the federal
government. If the federal government had to put him in jail for the first
time and say he had blocked a federal injunction, he knew it would make it
almost impossible for President Johnson to introduce a voting rights bill,
which was his ultimate goal, to establish the right to vote by law.
President Johnson did decide to go before the well of the Congress and propose
the Voting Rights Act in a historic speech, and that's the speech where he
closed by saying `we shall overcome,' which was an odd, jaw-dropping moment in
the well of the House. Many people thought they would never see any
president, let alone a Southern president, adopt the slogan of the civil
rights movement to enact a major piece of legislation. And within a day after
that federal judges ordered the federal government to protect the march.
So after much, much political drama, all of which raised the profile of this
effort to march through Klan country with nonviolent, unarmed people, the
march took off a third time, two weeks after Bloody Sunday, on March 21st, and
a great host marched 54 miles into Montgomery, ending on March 25th when King
gave the speech right under the dome of the Alabama Capitol, at the foot of
the Capitol, "How Long? Not Long," about the meaning of the voting rights
GROSS: Well, King and L.B.J., you know, kind of agreed on civil rights. I
mean, L.B.J. wasn't out there in the streets with Martin Luther King, but you
know, he was an advocate, finally, of civil rights. But King and L.B.J. were
opposed when it came to the war in Vietnam. L.B.J. escalated the war; King
opposed the war. How did it affect their relationship to disagree so strongly
Mr. BRANCH: It destroyed their relationship, but it destroyed their
relationship in an almost haunting and respectful way. Johnson apologized for
the war to King, but I don't think that he distorted his view. Johnson wanted
anything he could do to avoid the war. He hated the war. I think the record
pretty clearly shows that there was no argument that an anti-war person ever
made against the Vietnam War that Johnson didn't think of first and probably
agree with. He knew from the beginning that stalemate was likely and that
lots of bloodshed was likely to produce no satisfactory result. But he did it
anyway because, he said, `otherwise they'll call me a coward and run me out of
King knew that. He knew Johnson didn't want to do the war, and he also felt
that Johnson's commitment to civil rights--since, after all, he consciously
surrendered the South from the Democratic column and said `I'm giving it up
for my lifetime and future ones to the Republican Party'--and that he was
consciously changing the partisan structure of the United States, that he was
genuine about civil rights. He felt that Johnson made a terrible mistake, a
tragic mistake about Vietnam, knowing that he was doing it, but King felt
sympathy for Johnson to the point that he always said, `I have never
criticized Johnson,' and even used his name. He never, in all of his
criticisms of Vietnam, he never said, `This is President Johnson's war.' He
never said, `Lyndon Johnson is wrong.' He said, `I have never called the
president's name. This is our war, our country is doing it, and I'm not going
to blame it all on one poor Texas schoolteacher.'
GROSS: What was the reaction within the civil rights movement to Martin
Luther King's opposition to the war in Vietnam?
Mr. BRANCH: The major civil rights leaders, like Whitney Young and Roy
Wilkins, criticized Dr. King, said he should stay out of foreign policy.
They were loyal to the Johnson administration. Some others felt that he
didn't go far enough in criticizing the war and welcomed his criticism. The
reaction that hurt Dr. King the most was the reaction of the major news
organizations, the editorial boards of The New York Times and The Washington
Post, kind of the established opinion said he should stay out of foreign
affairs and stick to race relations, which is what most senators and
congressmen said, that he disgraced himself and that he should stay in race
relations. Those opinions hurt Dr. King the most because he felt they were
essentially denying his right to speak, segregating his citizenship.
GROSS: Here's an excerpt of King's speech "Beyond Vietnam," which he
delivered on April 4th, 1967, at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. Laying
out his arguments against the war in Vietnam, he said he had seven reasons for
bringing Vietnam into the field of his moral vision. His third came out of
his experiences working in the ghettos of Chicago.
Dr. KING: As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young
men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their
problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining
my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent
action. But they asked, and rightly so, `What about Vietnam?' They asked if
our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problem, to
bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that
I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in
the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of
violence in the world today, my own government. For the sake of those boys,
for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands
trembling under our bombs, I cannot be silent.
BIANCULLI: An excerpt from King's speech "Beyond Vietnam," delivered on April
4th, 1967, one year before King's death.
Terry spoke to Taylor Branch in 2006.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Michael Honey, professor of labor studies in American
History at University of Washington-Tacoma, talks about his new
book, "Going Down Jericho Road," about campaign Martin Luther
King Jr. was working on when he was murdered
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.
Forty years ago today Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Our
next guest, Michael Honey, has written a book about the campaign on which King
was working on when he was killed. As Honey points out, although many people
know that King died in Memphis, many don't know what he was doing there. He
was joining forces with 1300 black sanitation workers who were striking for
the right to unionize. The strikers and their supporters turned Memphis
upside down for 65 days in the winter of 1968.
King saw his work in Memphis as part of a new direction in the civil rights
movement, emphasizing economic equality. He said, quote, "We know that it
isn't enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be
able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't earn enough money to
buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?" Unquote.
Michael Honey's book is called "Going Down Jericho Road." Honey is a professor
of labor studies in American History at the University of Washington-Tacoma.
He spoke with Terry Gross last year.
TERRY GROSS, host:
What was the Memphis sanitation workers strike about? And what set off the
Mr. MICHAEL HONEY: It was about really this dignity for these workers and
dignity for African-Americans in a city that was still tied to the old
plantation ways and thought it had solved its race problems but really hadn't
and was very much a paternalist, top-down, "good ole boy" system. And Mayor
Henry Loeb sort of represented that. But in terms of the strike, what set it
off was just horrible working conditions.
GROSS: Why don't you describe the conditions?
Mr. HONEY: Well, most of these people worked, as they identified them, as
casual laborers, and so they had no set hours. They could come in and work
for six, eight, 10, 12 hours, until the job was done. They were never sure
how much they were going to be paid for that work. They didn't have pensions.
They didn't have vacations. They didn't have most of the things you would
think you would have with a full-time job. And they were very expendable.
They could be fired on a moment's notice. And on top of that, they were
making poverty-level wages. Forty percent of those workers in the sanitation
department were on welfare, even while they were working full-time jobs.
GROSS: The slogan of the Memphis sanitation workers strike was "I Am a Man,"
and "am" was underlined. What was the meaning the leadership wanted that
slogan to have?
Mr. HONEY: The "I Am a Man" slogan sort of emanated from the ranks of the
workers. A lot of these workers were very religious, so they had a real
conception of dignity and justice based on the Bible and their understanding
of Christianity. And they wanted to be treated as human beings, with respect.
And it was an all-male work force, so it was "I Am Man," but the whole black
community took up this slogan. Everybody instantly recognized what this
slogan meant, that it meant `We want an end to the plantation mentality and
the disrespect that white people show to black people every day of their
GROSS: What did Martin Luther King see as his role in the Memphis sanitation
Mr. HONEY: You know, I think King did in Memphis what he so famously did in
so many places. You can really see why he was so important to the movement
when you see what he did in Memphis. You know, there was a lot of backlash
against King in the student nonviolent coordinating committee and some of the
younger people in that period because people would say, `Well, he'd come in.
He'd make a speech and then he'd leave. He'd get a lot of publicity, but
we're still here doing the organizing.' And some people resented that.
But what actually transpired in Memphis was that the local movement went on
for about six weeks, and they were really desperate to get some national media
coverage. He came in. He brought the national media attention. Suddenly,
the national labor unions--AFL-CIO, George Meany--started to pay attention.
Money started coming in to the strike to support it. And more than that, when
King came in, he assessed the situation immediately and gave a brilliant
speech on March 18th that just shook the place. There were 15,000 people
there at this speech, and he called for a general strike in Memphis of all
black workers--domestic workers, garbage workers, teachers, students,
everybody walk out and shut the city down. And if you hear the recording of
that, people just went nuts.
GROSS: Well, you actually brought a copy of the recording with you, so I'd
like you to play us an excerpt of it. Would you introduce the excerpt that
you'd like to play?
Mr. HONEY: Yeah. What's happening here is that King has flown in from Las
Angeles via Jackson, Mississippi. He's on the poor people's campaign. He's,
himself, in serious trouble. He's exhausted. The FBI is pursuing him every
step of the way. They're wiretapping him. They've got informants in his
organization. He comes to Memphis, and instead of what he's experiencing in
many places, which is a lot of backlash against him because of his anti-war
stand--even in the black community, a lot of people dissing him for opposing
military action in Vietnam.
Instead of that, he comes to Memphis, and people are so overjoyed to see him
and so happy to have him come into their movement. And he responds to that by
explaining, in a way that almost nobody else could do, why their strike was so
important and why it was so important for the middle class to support the
working class and the poor in this situation.
GROSS: OK. So this is Martin Luther King recorded on March 18th, 1968.
Dr. KING: If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate
wages, we are going to have to struggle for them.
(Soundbite of audience responding)
Dr. KING: You know what? You may have to escalate the struggle a bit. If
they keep refusing , and they will not recognize the union and will not decree
further check-off for the collection of dues, I tell you what you ought to do,
and you're together here enough to do it.
(Soundbite of audience responding)
Dr. KING: In a few days, you ought to get together and just have a general
work stoppage in the city of Memphis.
(Soundbite of audience cheering, yelling)
Dr. KING: And you let that day come, not a Negro in this city will go to any
(Soundbite of audience responding)
Dr. KING: And no Negro in domestic service will go to anybody's house,
(Soundbite of audience responding)
GROSS: An excerpt of Martin Luther King speaking on March 18th of 1968.
And, Michael Honey, so after Martin Luther King calls for this general strike,
then, you know, the leadership had to figure out, `Well, what shape should the
general strike take? And how do you keep it nonviolent?' What shape did they
want the general strike to take?
Mr. HONEY: Mm-hmm. Well, unfortunately, there was no follow-up to this.
Taylor Rogers, who was very active in the strike and later became the
president of AFSCME Local 1733, said, `Well, you know, we never really
followed that up.' It was a great idea, and they were ready to do it on a kind
of spontaneous basis, and King was then scheduled to come back in a few days
and lead a mass march. And, undoubtedly, if he had come back to do that, the
students would have walked out of the schools, a lot of people would have
refused to go to work. It would have been something like a general strike of
But instead, what happened was they had this incredible snowfall that just
froze the mid-South. It was a freak snowfall, and so King couldn't come back.
And then they had to reschedule it, and he came back quite a bit later. And
things had changed and some of the energy had dissipated. And then a lot of
divisions started to sort of emerge within the movement.
GROSS: Well, although the general strike never happened, there was a big
demonstration that did happen on behalf of the sanitation workers. Tell us
about that demonstration and how it ended up in a confrontation with the
Mr. HONEY: Yeah. Well, what happened was that King came in from New York
City, where he was working on the poor people's campaign, and he came in very
late. The march was supposed to start at 10:00, and King was nowhere to be
seen, and they didn't want to start without him. This is March 28th, you
know, by that time it's pretty hot in Memphis. And people were waiting around
for him for an hour and a half or so. Meanwhile, students were walking out of
the schools and there was an incident at Hamilton High School where the police
came in and attacked the students, beat some people up. One young woman was
badly hurt, and the rumor spread that she had been killed. So all these
students started coming downtown to gather for the march, and they were
extremely agitated and angry.
And at the same time, a lot of the street people around Beale Street--which
is, you know, that famous street in Memphis of the blues and everything else,
people who were pickpockets, petty thieves, not movement people at all, began
to intersperse themselves into the march. And so when King finally did
arrive, the march itself was sort of out of control. The marshals couldn't
keep people together the way they wanted them to be. And when the march
finally did start, somebody started breaking windows, and suddenly they were
in a situation where King's leading a march and behind him windows are being
broken, and it looks like a riot is about to happen.
GROSS: That was a big fear that a lot of the organizers of the demonstration
had, that somehow like younger people or other people latching onto the
demonstration would become violent, and it would change the tone completely of
Mr. HONEY: Mm-hmm. Well, actually, this was the thing everybody was afraid
about having to do with the poor people's campaign itself. King was talking
about taking masses of people to Washington, DC. And as you remember, you
know, we had the long, hot summers back then. Every summer huge riots would
take place in the inner cities, usually set off by a confrontation with the
police. So what happened in Memphis was that King was suddenly put in that
very situation that everybody was dreading. And King, at the front of the
march, was suddenly confronted with a whole mass of police with their gas
masks, their clubs, which were four-feet long, their, you know, their weapons
And James Lawson, the ministerial leader, took King out of the march because
he didn't want King to be in the position of leading a riot, one; and two, he
didn't want King himself to get killed or badly hurt by the police. So when
they pulled King out, then the police attacked. And it wasn't so much a riot
of the people as it was a riot of the police. And when the police attacked,
then it just spread, and it became a riot of everybody.
But, you know, actually, as riots go, it wasn't much. There was not that much
damage. It wasn't an attack against people at all. It was an attack against
property. People were stealing liquor out of stores. But, you know, how big
of a crime is that? What was really bad about it was that the police just
laid siege to the black community for the next three days, and they brought in
the National Guard, and suddenly Memphis became a police state.
GROSS: Let's hear an excerpt of a speech that Martin Luther King gave on
April 3rd of 1968, and this was the day before he was killed. How long is the
speech after the confrontation that we were just talking about?
Mr. HONEY: The confrontation happens on March 28th, and then the National
Guard is brought in, and there's martial law for about four or five days.
They have a meeting in Atlanta to try to decide what to do about Memphis, and
there's a lot of division within the ranks of King's own organization.
They're angry that he went to Memphis, said, you know, `you never should have
gone there, we didn't want you to do this in the first place.' King walks out
of the meeting, goes away for several hours. Finally the staff realizes that
they have to unify behind him. And he says, you know, `I think we have to go
back to Memphis or else I'm done as a leader.'
And so they finally agree to that, and they all come back on April 2nd, and
then King comes in on April 3rd and he's served with an injunction, a federal
injunction saying he cannot march. And in the past King has always tried to
not go against federal courts because the federal courts have been often on
the side of the movement. So on April 3rd he's giving this speech in the
context of, he's saying, `I'm going to defy the federal injunction, we're
going to march come hell or high water, and it's going to be a nonviolent
march.' So, he's putting everything on the line.
GROSS: And this speech is most famous for the end of the speech in which he
talks about how he's been to the mountaintop, but the part we're going to hear
is specifically about the Memphis sanitation strike and the importance of
supporting these striking sanitation workers. So here's Martin Luther King.
Dr. KING: The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be
fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants who happen to be
(Soundbite of crowd clapping)
Dr. KING: Now, we've got to keep attention on that. That's always the
problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the
press dealt only with the window breaking. I read the articles. They very
seldom got around to mentioning the fact that 1,300 sanitation workers are on
strike and that Memphis is not being fair to them and that Mayor Loeb is in
dire need of a doctor. They didn't get around to that.
(Soundbite of crowd agreeing)
Dr. KING: Now, we are going to march again, and we've got to march again in
order to put the issue where it is supposed to be...
(Soundbite of crowd clapping)
Dr. KING: ...and force everybody to see the vow of 1300 of God's children
here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights
wondering how this thing is going to come out. That's the issue, and we've
got to say to the nation, we know how it's coming out. When people get caught
up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is
no stopping for a shout of victory.
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
GROSS: That's Martin Luther King in Memphis on the day before he was killed.
And my guest Michael Honey is the author of the book, "Going Down Jericho
Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign."
The day after the speech that we've been talking about, Martin Luther King is
assassinated. Did you learn anything that you didn't already know about his
assassination when you were doing research for your book?
Mr. HONEY: I learned some nuances. There are FBI files on King that fill up
almost a whole room at the FBI research room in Washington, DC. I didn't go
through all those files because a number of scholars have gone through them in
great depth. One of the things that they did was J. Edgar Hoover, the head
of the FBI, instructed his agents not to pass on information to King when
there was a threat against his life. So they knew there were threats on King
when he was coming into Memphis, but they're not passing them on to King.
So, in addition to that, I found that there were about 40 police cars in that
area of Memphis circling around. The police were everywhere. Once King was
shot, the police came out of the woodwork. Jesse Jackson was there, and the
New York Times interviewed him and said, `What happened?' He said, `Well,
there was a shot and all these police came charging to us. But clearly the
shot came from somewhere else. We could hear the rifle shot over in the
distance, but none of them were going toward where the shot was heard. They
were going toward the balcony.' So, a lot of people were drawing this
conclusion that the police already knew what the target was.
Now, beyond that, we know that there was a reward out on King's life and that
James Earl Ray somehow escaped despite the fact that there were police
everywhere and was on his way to Rhodesia from England, I believe it was, when
he was arrested.
Now, a lot of people in the black community at the time did not believe the
idea that it was just one person that came in and did it. I don't know what
the answer to that is, but certainly King was not getting the protection that
he should have gotten under the circumstances that existed at that time.
GROSS: Michael Honey, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. HONEY: Thank you.
BIANCULLI: Michael Honey, speaking to Terry Gross in 2007. His book, "Going
Down Jericho Road," examines what causes Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting
in Memphis when he was assassinated 40 years ago today.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: David Edelstein on the new Rolling Stones documentary,
"Shine a Light," from director Martin Scorsese
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
"Shine a Light," the new concert film about the Rolling Stones, was shot over
two performances in the Beacon Theater in New York in the fall of 2006.
Director Martin Scorsese was less interested in making a standard rock concert
documentary than in capturing the spirit, and especially the music, of the
Rolling Stones. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: The funniest thing in Martin Scorsese's mega-wattage
Rolling Stones concert movie "Shine a Light" is footage of a young, soft-faced
Jagger in the mid-'60s being asked how much longer he thinks the Stones will
stay together. What is it about this band that makes you always think of its
demise? Is it something inherently fraught about their sound, that blend of
driving rock and ramshackle blues? Is it Keith Richards' legendary drug
intake, which killed many a musician who tried to keep up? Scorsese doesn't
penetrate the mystery of the band's regeneration. He stands before Jagger
like a pagan sun-worshipper. He knows that merely capturing this magical
energy, this dynamo, is triumph enough.
He comes close to pulling it off, although I didn't see "Shine a Light" in
IMAX, and I think its extra oomph might make a difference. Scorsese brings
together a Marvel Comics-worthy assemblage of super-cinematographers who shot
their footage from all angles, and he cuts it together to get your adrenaline
flowing. But Jagger is remote. His singing has always had a dash of irony.
He has a persona: insinuating, more than a little black, polymorphously
sexual. But here it feels rote, as if the lyrics have no connection to
anything in his life now.
Scorsese is canny enough to make Jagger's elusiveness the movie's launching
point: The director appears in a black-and-white prologue, trying to connect
over the phone with Jagger about the set, the song list, the camera.
(Soundbite of "Shine a Light")
(Soundbite of "Under My Thumb" playing beneath scene)
Mr. MICK JAGGER: My other worry about the cameras was, Marty, that they whiz
around all the time, and that's very annoying to the audience and to everyone
on the stage, and it's dangerous.
Mr. MARTIN SCORSESE: It'll be good to have a camera that moves, that swoops
down, and in and out.
Mr. JAGGER: Yeah.
Mr. SCORSESE: And tracks us, you know, along the side somehow.
Mr. JAGGER: Is that it?
Mr. SCORSESE: I think so.
Mr. JAGGER: OK.
Unidentified Woman: OK.
Mr. JAGGER: Okey-doke, you guys, nice to chat.
(Soundbite of phone being hung up)
(Soundbite of ringtone)
(End of soundbite)
Mr. EDELSTEIN: Jagger's motor runs too fast even for Scorsese, king of
speed-freaky motor-mouths. Yet even here, in concert, Jagger is a fascinating
spectacle: his lightning stutter-steps, his rope-thin torso, his spastic
finger-pointing. His voice has always been underrated, and it still has
(Soundbite of "Some Girls")
Mr. JAGGER: (Singing) So give me all your money,
Give me all your gold
I buy you a house at Zuma Beach
I'll give you half of what I own
French girls, they want Cartier
Italian girls want cars
American girls want everything in the world you could possibly imagine
English girls, they're so prissy
I can't stand them on the telephone
Sometimes I want to tear the whole damn thing off
And never want them to ever call at all
(End of soundbite)
Mr. EDELSTEIN: My favorite rock concert movie is Jonathan Demme's "Stop
Making Sense" with the Talking Heads. There, and in his "Neil Young: Heart
of Gold," Demme shoots performance in a way that illuminates the performer's
roots and the process of putting the music and the act together. "Shine a
Light" is nowhere near that organic; Scorsese is firmly on the outside peering
in. Yet there is, amid the spectacle, a point of connection between him and
the Stones. Scorsese has always adored rock; he uses it marvelously in his
films and made a classic concert movie, "The Last Waltz." Here, he ceded power
to Jagger, who wouldn't even give him a set list.
But Scorsese is a rock star in the editing room. At the end of "Shine a
Light," he takes the movie back. The camera follows the Stones out of the
Beacon Theater, and there's Scorsese outside the stage door, waving the camera
up, up, up over Manhattan Island. He's showing off his own muscle by rising
above the throng.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.