'Dream' Speech Writer Jones Reflects On King Jr.
Clarence Jones helped draft Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech and was a close personal adviser and lawyer to the civil rights leader. But he almost turned down the chance to work with King. He explains what changed his mind in his memoir, Behind the Dream.
Other segments from the episode on January 17, 2011
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'Dream' Speech Writer Jones Reflects On King Jr.
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in this week for Terry Gross.
The most enduring images and sounds of Martin Luther King's life come from his
"I Have A Dream" speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28th,
1963. Our guest, Clarence Jones, helped draft the text King held that day, and
he was standing a few feet away when King spoke. As he'll soon explain, the
words I have a dream weren't originally part of the speech.
Jones was a young attorney and part of King's inner circle when the march on
Washington was planned, and he tells his story in a new book called "Behind the
Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation." Clarence Jones is
currently a scholar in residence and visiting professor at Stanford
University's Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. He also
writes regularly for the Huffington Post.
I spoke to him about Martin Luther King and his historic speech last week. I
asked him to read from the beginning of the book.
Mr. CLARENCE JONES (Author, "Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that
Transformed a Nation"): (Reading) A quarter of a million people, human beings
who generally had spent their lives treated as something less, stood shoulder
to shoulder across that vast lawn, their hearts beating as one - hope on the
line when hope was an increasingly scarce resource.
There is no dearth of prose describing the mass of humanity that made its way
to the feet of the Great Emancipator that day; no metaphor that has slipped
through the cracks waiting to be discovered, dusted off, and injected into the
discourse a half century on. The march on Washington has been compared to a
tsunami, a shockwave, a wall, a living monument, a human mosaic, an outright
It was all of those things, and if you saw it with your own eyes, it wasnât
hard to write about. With that many people in one place crying out for
something so elemental, you donât have to be Robert Frost to offer some
Still, I can say to those who know the event only as a steely black-and-white
television image, itâs a shame that the colors of that day - the blue sky, the
vibrant green life, the golden sun everywhere - are not part of our national
There is something heart-wrenching about the widely shown images and film clips
of the event that belies the joy of the day.
DAVIES: Well, Clarence Jones, welcome to FRESH AIR. I thought we'd begin,
before we talk about the march, I want you to tell us how you and Martin Luther
King met, how he got you involved in the movement?
Mr. JONES: Well, it was - I was a 29-year-old lawyer, just a graduate of law
schools since seven months previous. After that, I'd just moved to California.
And I got a call in February of 1960 from Judge Hubert Delaney, was a well-
known lawyer and judge here in New York.
And he said: Clarence, The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., you know, the
preacher from Alabama, has been indicted for tax evasion and perjury, and I'm
the head of the defense team.
But, he said, we need a law clerk. We need someone who can do all the legal
research. But we need you to come to Montgomery, Alabama, and work with us. And
I said: Judge, I'd like to, but, you know, I just got here, and I just can't do
And I could tell that he was disappointed with me, and he hung up the phone.
The following morning, I get a call from Judge Delaney, and he said, you know,
I didn't know it at the time that we had our conversation last night, but Dr.
King, he is - he's on his way to California. He has a speaking engagement there
on Saturday. And I suggested to him that he stop by and see you.
And so Friday evening, there's a knock on my door. Two gentlemen show up. One
has a hat on, and he says: Mr. Jones, I'm Martin King, and this is my
colleague, the Reverend Bernard Lee, so forth.
So he comes in, and to put it in historical context, he was then regarded as a
celebrity, at least he was regarded as such by my wife, who thought that when
Martin Luther King Jr. was coming to our home, it was a combination of Moses,
Jesus, George Clooney, Sidney Poitier and whoever - Michael Jackson.
So in he comes, and he sits down, we have some pleasantries and so forth, and
he gets right to the point. He says: You know, Mr. Jones, we have lots of white
lawyers who help us in the movement. But what we need is that we need young
Negro professionals, more Negro lawyers who can help us because every time we
embark on something, we are being hit with some kind of legal action, and it's
And I listened very attentively, and I said: Dr. King, I admire you and what
you are seeking to do, but as I said to Judge Delaney, you know, it's just
really not possible for me at this time.
DAVIES: But, you know, as you describe this in the book, although you say you
were respectful, and you were - you know, admired what he was doing, as you
describe it, it sort of sounds like you were a little bit disdainful, some
Mr. JONES: Well, my wife thought I was. That's why I was going to continue
because she said - as soon as he left, she turned to me, and she said to me:
What are you doing that's so important that you can't help this man?
And so, she was angry at me, and then I began to be angry at Martin King,
because I thought to myself, you know, like all young couples, we were living
in domestic tranquility, and here this total stranger comes into my house and
gets my wife angry at me over something I had nothing to do with.
So that was not a pleasant evening, and so the following morning, however, the
telephone rings, and a woman on the phone says: Mr. Jones? I said: Yes. She
says: My name is Dora McDonald. I'm Dr. King's secretary. Dr. King enjoyed so
much his visit with you and Mrs. Jones. But he forgot to extend to you an
invitation to be his guest tomorrow. He's preaching in Los Angeles, and he
would like for you to attend as his guest.
So I listened, and I said: Well, thank you very much. My wife was standing
nearby, and I told her verbatim the conversation I just had with Dora McDonald.
And here again, she said: Well, you may not be going to Montgomery, Alabama,
but you're going to that church.
So I go to the church. Now, this is a church in Baldwin Hills. Now, at that
time, Baldwin Hills was, and still is but maybe to a lesser extent now, since
blacks can move into Bel Air and Brentwood and other places, but at that time,
Baldwin Hills was the section, neighborhood in Los Angeles where the black
bourgeoisie, the so-called accomplished black professionals lived.
So I go into the church. Dr. King is introduced, and he gets up, and he says:
Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, the text of my sermon today is the
role and the responsibility of the Negro professional to aid our less fortunate
brothers and sisters who are struggling for freedom in the South.
So I thought to myself: This is one smart dude.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JONES: This is actually - he's come right to the right church and the right
pew. I had never heard anyone speak with such extraordinary eloquence and
And then during the course of this very eloquent description of what he was
seeking to do through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he pauses,
and he says: And for example, there's a young man sitting in this church today.
And he's not looking at me, he's just preaching.
There's a young man sitting in this church today, and my friends in New York,
whom I have great respect, they tell me that this young man's brain has been
touched by the Lord. They tell me that this young lawyer, when he does legal
research, he can go into the books and go all the way back to the time of
William the Conqueror, 1066, and the Magna Carta.
And then when he finds it and writes it down, my friends in New York, whom I
have great respect for, tell me the words he writes are so compelling they just
jump off the page.
DAVIES: Did you know he was talking about you?
Mr. JONES: No, so I have not the - I don't - he's not looking at me. I don't
think he's talking about me at all, and if it - it could not have been me
because it would have been an exaggerated description of me. So I actually -
I'm thinking: I want to meet this dude he's talking about. I want to connect
up, and, you know, see who this person...
And then he goes on. He says: But I had a chance to meet with this young man
the other night. And he began to describe his coming to my home, and he
described his meeting with me. He's not looking at me.
And he, then in the course of telling that, he says: But - and this young man
has forgotten from whence he came. And he says: Like so many of you in this
audience, in this church here today, somebody made it possible for you to be -
have a measure of success.
And I got tearful. The sermon's over. As I said, he's like a rock star. So he's
standing on the steps to the entrance to the pulpit outside the church, and I
walk over to him, and as I walk over to him, he looks at me like a Cheshire cat
who had swallowed the mouse. He never - he says: I never mentioned your name,
Mr. Jones. I never mentioned your name.
And I walk over to him, and I put my hand in his hand, and I said: Dr. King,
when do you want me to go to Montgomery, Alabama? Since then, that transformed
DAVIES: So if we fast-forward then a few years, it's 1963, and, you know, the
movement's rolling. You're at this point an attorney. You're working with
Martin Luther King, part of his inner circle, traveling with him. And they
begin to plan this march on Washington for jobs and freedom, kind of a revival
of an idea that A. Philip Randolph had come up with in the '30s, as you
Mr. JONES: That is correct.
DAVIES: And you said: King's life at that time was so frenetic that he needed a
place to be a little more secluded so he could plan. So you gave him your house
in Riverdale for that purpose.
And one of the interesting things about your description is that you were
having all of these conversations about how to build a crowd, how to build a
coalition of people, of speakers of interest, and the FBI was listening to all
of it. Did you suspect that at the time?
Mr. JONES: No, we did not suspect it at that time. Every telephone conversation
that took place from my home or my office, where Martin Luther King Jr. was on
the other end of the phone, was wiretapped. I didn't have any suspicion.
But as it began to be like in '64 and '65, I began to have some suspicion. It
was just a gut reaction. And at that time, our conference calls would
frequently start around 10 or 11 o'clock at night, and I would have had maybe
two or three martinis and maybe a little Jack Daniels before the conference
And I remember, just before we'd start the conference call, we'd get on the
phone, and I would say: Hold on everybody. And I would say something like: Now,
Mr. FBI Man, now are you ready? Do you have your pencil and paper? Now, I just
want you to be sure you get this down accurately because we have a lot to talk
And Dr. King would say: All right, Clarence, you know, enough with the
theatrics. I mean, they've got better things to do. He would say, they have
better things to do than be listening to our conversations. I said: Yeah, yeah,
Martin, but I'm sure they are.
DAVIES: Well, and you later learned that Robert Kennedy himself, the attorney
general at the time, had personally authorized the tap on your phone.
Mr. JONES: That is correct.
DAVIES: I'm wondering, would you have behaved differently, would the
conversations have been different if you'd known the FBI was listening?
Mr. JONES: Yes, I think we would have. We would have been less forthcoming.
DAVIES: Now, as you planned the march, the plan was that the march would end at
the Capitol building and that Martin Luther King and the other leaders would
speak on the top steps of the capital. And as we all know, it ended up being at
the Lincoln Memorial. Why was that?
Mr. JONES: Well, initially, when it was - when the march was unfolding, the
plans - it was planned to be on the steps of the Capitol building. But
President Kennedy and the attorney general, particularly the president, there
was a pending civil rights bill in Congress, and he very strongly said that it
would be counterproductive, that the Congress would regard the demonstration at
the Capitol steps as considering the civil rights bill with a gun pointed to
And so we - when I say we, A. Philip Randolph, (unintelligible), and Dr. King,
the other members of the several organizations, decided that yes it would - to
make that question a non-issue, we moved it to the foot of the Lincoln
DAVIES: We're speaking with Clarence Jones. He's the author, with Stuart
Connelly, of the new book "Behind the Dream." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Clarence B. Jones. He was a
close advisor and attorney with Martin Luther King in the 1960s. He's written a
book about the "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered at the march on Washington.
It's called "Behind the Dream."
So there was enormous planning building up to the march on Washington that
August of 1963, and there was the matter of Martin Luther King's speech. There
were going to be a lot of speakers. He would speak last. Was there ever any
question that Martin Luther King would be the final speaker or that he would
have more time than the others?
Mr. JONES: Oh, absolutely there was a question of that. During the week
preceding that, there was the behind-the-scenes discussion among the big six,
or their representatives, about who was going to be the last speaker.
A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin and Cleveland Robinson, (unintelligible)
labor leader, myself, we felt - and Martin himself felt - that he should be the
last speaker. But he felt - he certainly felt it was inappropriate for him to
And so I had a discussion with A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin to join
with Cleveland Robinson, and I said: Well, I think he should be the last
speaker. I said: I believe that most people who are coming to this march, with
all due respect to the other members of the big six organizations, they are
really coming in anticipation of hearing Dr. King.
There was some resistance. So finally I remember saying: Let's think about it.
Do you really want to follow Martin Luther King Jr.? Do you really want to
Mr. JONES: And there was dead silence, and that was it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: You know, I know that at this point, you know, this was 1963, and the
movement had years of experience with the media, with local officials, with
tactics of, you know, protest. And I know there was a lot of savvy
consideration of how it would be perceived and how the message would be
generated. Were people thinking about television then, about how it would look
Mr. JONES: Yes, absolutely. In fact, the person among us who gave us an
education on the power of television was really Harry Belafonte. He said: You
have to look at this as a media event, not just as a march.
And so, for example, Harry was responsible for assembling what was called the
celebrity delegation, a lot of celebrities from Hollywood and performing
artists. And he was very firm that they should sit in a certain strategic part
on the podium because he knew that the television cameras would pan to them,
would look to them.
And so he wanted to be sure that they were strategically situated so that in
looking at the celebrities, they'd also see a picture of the march and the
other performers. Yes, we were very much concerned about that.
And then Martin King was, he was especially concerned about the white-black
composition of the march. So we were hopeful that there would be, oh, like a
minimum of 25 to 30 to 35 percent or more of white people who would attend the
In fact, the participation was somewhere between 20 and 25 percent maximum, and
to that extent, he was disappointed.
DAVIES: So the day arrives. You wake up in the morning. You, Martin Luther King
had stayed up working on his speech, and you write that you were relieved to
see that it was finished, and copies were being mimeographed for distribution
to the media that would be assembled.
And a concern occurred to you about whether it should be copyrighted. Tell us
Mr. JONES: Well, when I learned that the speech was being mimeographed, I
actually got over to the press tent, where all the media was assembled, and I
saw them putting this copy into brown envelopes along with a lot of press
materials, folders about the march.
And I cannot really say why I did it. Something occurred to me because I'd had
the experience of so many people trying to rip off and take advantage of, use
material that had either been written or spoken by Martin. And so I said to
myself: I'm going to put a little circle with a C in on the mimeographed copies
just to protect what is called the common law copyright.
Without getting into a lot of discussion, it's just that a lot of people may
not know, is that anything, anytime a person creates a book or a writing, is
that you have what is called a common law copyright. That's, you created it,
But that common law copyright, if you distribute it over a wide audience, so it
is not a limited distribution, you will extinguish your common law copyright.
So putting a notice of the common law copyright was a way of protecting that.
So that's what I did.
DAVIES: And what's been the impact of your having copyrighted that speech?
Mr. JONES: Well, the impact of that, you'd have to understand - after the march
was over, okay, I'm in New York City, and I'm walking down the street. And I
hear record stores playing a recording of the speech.
So I got back to my law office, and I checked the information in the record
check, and I finally reach the offices of 20th Century Fox records, and I
called them up.
And I said, you know, are you putting out this record? And they said: Oh, yes,
of course. The speech is in the public domain. Anyone can - I said: No, it's
not in the public domain.
We worked feverishly to bring an action in federal court, and in the hearing in
federal court, the decision was rendered that this speech was not in the public
domain, and little did I know that that single act of statutory copyright
protection would protect one of the most invaluable pieces of intellectual
property that the King estate currently has.
DAVIES: Yeah, how much has it been worth over the years? Any idea?
Mr. JONES: I have no idea, but it's been the principal source of revenue, I'm
certainly of that.
DAVIES: Clarence Jones' book is called "Behind the Dream." He'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross, back with
Clarence Jones. He was a young lawyer and adviser to Martin Luther King in 1963
and helped draft Kingâs âI Have A Dreamâ speech. He's written a new book about
the experience called âBehind the Dream.â
Lets go back to the day of the speech. It's interesting that you tell us that
the phrase I have the dream was not in the text that Martin Luther King took to
the podium, but it was an idea he had spoken of before, right?
Mr. JONES: That is correct. He had used that phrase, I have a dream, in other
speeches, and specifically, he had used it in a speech he had given in June in
Detroit at, I think, at a place called Cobalt(ph) Hall. Martin Luther King, Jr.
could speak in real time and he could cut and paste from speeches or articles
or things that he said before. So the speech â the so-called celebrated âI Have
A Dreamâ speech was an entirely spontaneous and extemporaneous speech. He was
not speaking from written context except for the first nine paragraphs of
textural material, which I had contributed to, you know, for him to use
DAVIES: Right. Which is â yeah, if I - I'm sorry to interrupt, which is really
worth listening to, and folks can hear the whole thing. But you describe this
incredible moment on stage at which you watch him decide to depart from the
text and go on the I have a dream theme. Recreate that for us.
Mr. JONES: What happened is that as he is reading from the paragraphs which he
had written, incorporating some of the language and material which I and others
has contributed, Mahalia Jackson who was his favorite gospel singer, who had
previously performed, she turns to him and she shouts to him, tell them about
the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream. And he acknowledges her and
momentarily pauses and he pushes the - I watched him push the text of the
speech aside, grabbed the podium, lean back and look out at those 250,000
people or more assembled, and I leaned to somebody standing next to me, I said
these people don't know it but they're about ready to go to church.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JONES: And that's when he started this extraordinary extemporaneous
proration and it was mesmerizing. It was something as I think I used the word
it was like he had captured lightning in a bottle. I say that was Martin Luther
King, Jr. What you saw you will never see again in a millennium.
DAVIES: You make the point in the book that you don't get the power of the
words by reading them. You really have to hear them. So why don't we just
listened to a bit of that improvised âI Have A Dreamâ speech.
(Soundbite of âI Have A Dreamâ speech)
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr. (Reverend; Civil Rights Leader): I still have a
dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning
of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created
Unidentified Woman: Yeah.
(Soundbite of applause, cheering and whistles)
Dr. KING: I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of
former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down
together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering
with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be
transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
(Soundbite of applause)
Dr. KING: I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a
nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the
content of their character.
I have a dream today.
(Soundbite of applause and cheering)
Dr. KING: I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious
racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of
interposition and nullification - one day right there in Alabama little black
boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and
white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
(Soundbite of applause and cheering)
DAVIES: After all these years does it still move you to hear that?
Mr. JONES: Oh it certainly does. It moves me and, you know, as I â yes. The
answer is yes. In fact, I in my lectures and teaching at Stanford University I
say to students, the only speech historically that I think that has a
comparison as Lincoln's âGettysburg Address.â
DAVIES: Did it feel at the time that you were experiencing something historic?
Mr. JONES: After the speech, I thought that I had witnessed and I had
participated in a transcendental moment. Actually, I went up to him, as several
people did, and pulled him on the shoulder and I said, you know, listening to
you was like listening to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and some of the
great artists. He was, he had this ability to improvise. It was something so
extraordinary that you have to see it and hear it to appreciate it and believe
DAVIES: We're speaking with Clarence B. Jones. He has written the book with
Stuart Connelly âBehind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a
You know, you mention in the book that in a meeting, I believe I'm remembering
this correctly, with Robert Kennedy in June of 1963, that he asserted that
because of the, you know, progress that he and his brothers and others were
making in the area of civil rights, that in 40 years a Negro could become
president. Did you ever think you'd see an African-American president in your
Mr. JONES: No I did not. And I think you're referring to a meeting that Robert
Kennedy, I think, when he made that statement it was during a course of his
meeting with James Baldwin, Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte.
Mr. JONES: No. The answer to your question, no I did not believe it would
DAVIES: Last summer, Glenn Beck, the, you know, cable talk show host held a
restore America's honor rally at the Lincoln Memorial, hearkening back to the,
you know, the march in 1963 in Martin Luther King's speech. And many people
were very critical. Al Sharpton accused him of hijacking a movement that had
changed America. You see it differently, right?
Mr. JONES: I see it differently. The way I see it is that the rally that Glenn
Beck held, first of all you have to just it was an extraordinary acknowledgment
of the power of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. I mean he was seeking to
make his rally relevant because of what took place on August 28th, 1963. There
will always be efforts from persons who differ with what Martin King stood for,
from those persons to appropriate him for their own purposes. This is one of
the reasons that prompted me to write a earlier book called âWhat Would Martin
Say?,â because I got sick and tired of having people pimp Martin King's legacy
for their own personal political purposes.
And I watched the Glenn Beck rally from beginning to end and I thought that,
while I disagreed with some of the ways in which he interpreted the prior rally
of Martin King at the same place, nevertheless, he did give due deference and
acknowledgment to the contribution of Martin Luther King, Jr. on that date and
at that place.
DAVIES: I have to note that at the end of the book you take some stock of how
far America has come since 1963. And you talk about the importance of
redressing some of the economic inequalities that are the legacy of slavery and
discrimination. This is a big question, but where are we on race in America
Mr. JONES: You'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to recognize that
extraordinary progress has been made. But still, even with an African-American
president, the question of race or race relations still remains what I call the
800 pound gorilla in the living room of all American households. It's still
something that taunts us, that makes us uncomfortable, and I think that is
largely because there's never been a sufficient reconciliation after slavery of
the American psyche â the American institutions.
Yes, there's been an apology for slavery. But the question is that institution,
which was so searing and so extraordinarily deep in our national fiber, that we
are still suffering from the consequences of that.
The principal issue today is one, not just for African-Americans, but really
the income inequality. And then for the African-American community, I mean if
Martin were alive today, I mean he would be appalled, as I am and I'm sure many
other people of good will who are concerned about the progress of African-
Americans, I mean, how can you not be concerned when you see the wanton
violence that takes place, principally gun violence, the high incidence of out
of wedlock children in the African-American community, the 45 percent or more
incidence of HIV virus?
There are things which are occurring in the African-American community where
African-American leaders have to be very candid and comfortable enough to say
hey, these things are not because of what quote, âthe white man did to us,â
it's because of what we are doing to ourselves or what we are failing to take
advantage of. So, even with the extraordinary achievement of an African-
American president, yes, the glass is half-full, but we still have a way to go
to fill the glass up to the top.
DAVIES: Well, Clarence Jones, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. JONES: Thank you.
DAVIES: Clarence Jones is Scholar in Residence and visiting professor at
Stanford University's Martin Luther King, Jr., Research & Education Institute.
He also writes regularly for the Huffington Post. His new book is called
âBehind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation.â
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Following The 'Trail' Of King Assassin James Earl Ray
(Soundbite of music)
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Earlier this year, writer Hampton Sides published a gripping and detailed
account of the months leading up to Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968.
Sidesâ book reconstructs the movements and activities of Kingâs confessed
assassin, James Earl Ray, intercut with the story of King, the man Ray was
Hampton Sides is an editor-at-large for Outside magazine and author of the
historical books "Ghost Soldiers" and "Blood and Thunder." I spoke to him in
April about his book "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther
King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin." I asked him about
King's activities and his frame of mind in the final weeks of his life.
Mr. HAMPTON SIDES (Author, "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin
Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin"): This is a very
different Martin Luther King than I think most of us are familiar with. He had
been getting death threats for, really, his whole career, but in those last few
weeks and months, he was getting more of them, and they were - the whole thing
He had developed enemies and lost a lot of his allies in Washington because of
his criticism of the Vietnam War, and it felt like he was in danger of being
outflanked by the black power movement. He was not sleeping very well. He was
smoking. He was eating too much and gaining weight. His marriage with Coretta
was unraveling. It was a very dark and very intense and desperate time for him.
And he had just hatched this very controversial Poor People's Campaign, which
was, essentially, the idea was to build an enormous shantytown on the Mall in
Washington, bring the poor people of - all over the country, not just African-
Americans, but American Indians and people from Appalachia, from all walks of
life to Washington to stage this sort of protest at the feet of Capitol Hill,
to protest the conditions in the ghettos and systemic multi-generational
It was a very, very controversial and heavily criticized phase of the movement.
King had essentially decided to shift his focus from civil rights to economic
justice. And so, this was kind of where he was at when he got the phone call to
come to Memphis to represent the garbage workers who had gone on strike.
DAVIES: Explain just a little bit about this sanitation workers' strike and why
it brought Martin Luther King to Memphis and what sort of challenges that posed
for him and his movement.
Mr. SIDES: Mm-hmm. His advisors thought that coming to Memphis was a real
mistake, that it was quite a kind of left turn for him to be making, that he
should be focused on this thing in Washington exclusively. But, you know, he
couldn't ignore what was happening in Memphis. These guys were striking for
better wages and for better conditions after a horrible accident in which two
garbage workers had been ground up in a faulty hydraulic truck mechanism.
And when he came to Memphis, he decided he would lead a march down Beale
Street, the historic avenue of the blues, and this was going to be it. He would
leave Memphis, and he would go back to Washington and start recruiting for this
bigger cause that he was pushing for.
DAVIES: But the march really went very wrong, didn't it?
Mr. SIDES: The march got taken over by black militants and high school students
who were just out for a good time. And it turned violent and there was looting
and smashing of windows, and the cops descended on everyone. And it was really
a nightmare for Martin Luther King because his whole career, of course, was
staked on nonviolence, and here he was appearing to be leading a violent march.
So this set up kind of the third act, which was he realized he had to come back
to Memphis yet again to lead another march that would be peaceful. And it was
that third appearance in Memphis that got him killed.
DAVIES: Now according to the evidence that the FBI later developed, we know
that James Earl Ray had a map with places in Atlanta where Martin Luther King
might have been found. So it's clear he had an interest in his movements. Where
did he go to finally get the perch from which he would fire the fatal shot?
Mr. SIDES: Ray ended up checking into a flophouse on South Main, which was
directly across from the Lorraine Motel. He was shown a room that faced towards
Main Street, which would be the other side of the building, and he immediately
said, no, thank you, I don't want that.
And then he was shown a room on the back side that faced the Lorraine, and he
immediately took that and paid a week's rent, which makes me think, makes most
of us think that he was thinking he'd be there a while, that he probably wasn't
going to be doing an assassination from that room, that he was simply going to
use that room as a perch to follow King's movements, thinking the lawyers are
going to be working this out for weeks - for at least days, up to a week, until
they would actually get to do this march. So I don't think he thought the
assassination would take place there.
DAVIES: As it happened, his opportunity came that very day. Now, did he
actually have a shot at King from the room that he rented?
Mr. SIDES: He did but he would've had to have leaned out over the window and
expose himself. The angle is less than ideal. The only way he could really get
a direct shot was to go down to the communal bathroom, which was this filthy
room, you know, down the hall that had a direct shot if he stood in the
After the assassination, the police found that the window in the bathroom had
been jerked up about five inches. The screen had been jimmied from its groove,
and there was a palm print on the wall and various people in the flophouse had
heard a shot coming from that bathroom. So it became pretty clear that's where
the shot came from.
DAVIES: So it appears that James Earl Ray took the rifle, which he had
purchased recently, from his room down to the bathroom, where he could get a
clear look at King, who, as it turned out, was lingering on his balcony. You
also note that he realized that he needed some binoculars to really follow his
movements. He went out and bought those.
When it came time to get a shot - it's interesting, he loaded only a single
round into the weapon.
Mr. SIDES: Right.
DAVIES: How hard or easy a shot was this for a guy who obviously was not a
Mr. SIDES: You know, I've stood on the balcony and I've stood in the flophouse,
which is now a part of the National Civil Rights Museum. It's an easy shot.
It's about 200 feet. With a seven-power scope, which is what he had, it would
appear to be about 30 feet. King's face would've almost completely filled the
optical plane of the scope.
He was not a trained or, you know, professional marksman, but he had been in
the Army and had fired that very caliber of weapon. And I don't think, you
know, in the end, you know, the shot itself was actually fairly easy.
DAVIES: King was lingering on the balcony with some friends because they were
about to go out to dinner. And you write that he was in a jovial and relaxed
mood when he was hit by this shot, which caught him on the jaw and did terrible
damage. The police were actually watching from a perch very nearby. Why?
Mr. SIDES: The Memphis police had been following King and his entourage
everywhere, and also, a local black power group called the Invaders, who were
in negotiations with King. So they had two black policemen in this firehouse
that happened to face the Lorraine, looking at events through a peephole.
So, you know, there were people watching this from various vantage points. And,
you know, when this shot rang out, these policemen all ran outside from the
firehouse and ran towards the Lorraine, trying to figure out, you know, which
direction did the shot come from.
DAVIES: And the firehouse was literally next door to the boarding house that
Ray was perched in?
Mr. SIDES: It's across the street.
Mr. SIDES: And again, is about, like, 200, maybe 250 feet away.
DAVIES: It does seem remarkable that with the police in a firehouse very
nearby, that James Earl Ray was able to fire this shot, which was heard by lots
of people, and then slip away. How close did he come to getting caught then?
Mr. SIDES: Within 30 seconds. He ran down the stairs and he took a left turn.
He was running towards his car, which was a white Mustang that was parked on
the street, when he saw some policemen who were gathered around that fire
And he had to do a very impulsive thing. On one level, you could say this was a
really stupid act. He ditched the weapon. Everything needed to solve that case
was in that bundle with the weapon and various other belongings that he had
there. But if he hadn't done that, he would have been caught immediately with
the weapon in his arms. So, you know, he really, he had to do that.
He jumped in the car and took off, and there were several witnesses there who
saw the white Mustang as it took off heading north on Main Street. So, you
know, he came probably within 30 seconds of getting caught.
DAVIES: We're talking with Hampton Sides about the assassination of Martin
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Letâs get back to our conversation with Hampton Sides. His book
"Hellhound on His Trailâ chronicles the assassination of Martin Luther King,
Jr. and the pursuit of his killer, James Earl Ray.
Well, for two months, he managed to evade the FBI, which despite Hoover's
antipathy for King, was actively investigating this, throwing all of the
resources they could into it. He finds his way to Canada because border
crossings were easy there, and then he figured out how to get a passport and
airline ticket out of the country.
James Earl Ray, after being captured in London, was extradited to the United
States. He confessed and was sentenced to life in prison. And what I'm struck
by at the end of the book is in some ways what a small guy he seemed. I mean,
I'm reminded of the Hannah Arendt observation of the banality of evil.
And I'm just wondering, do you feel like you understand him? Is he like Travis
Bickle in "Taxi Driver," some tortured soul or like Timothy McVeigh, a man
who's, a young man whoâs ideologically driven? Do you feel like you get him?
Mr. SIDES: I get parts of him. You know, I think that there wasn't a single
motivation so much as, you know, kind of an amalgam of sub-motivations that he
kind of threw into a blender and stuck it on puree. You know, like, yes, he was
a person who thought of himself as a businessman and as a hustler. And, yes, he
was a racist. Yes, he had a history of mental illness accentuated by years of
amphetamine use. Throw all those sort of sub-motivations into this blender and
I think you begin to get some sense of how he could've done this and why he
could've done this.
But in the end, you're right, it's really about the banality of evil. It's
about how a very hollow person can bring down a great man. And, unfortunately,
we've got a long and sordid history of people like that in this country.
DAVIES: Well Hampton Sides, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. SIDES: Thanks for having me on the show.
DAVIES: Hampton Sides is the author of "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of
Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin."
Weâll close today with more of Martin Luther King, Jr.âs âI Have A Dreamâ
speech, and then we'll hear Aretha Franklin perform a version of the song she
sang at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(Soundbite of Dr. Kingâs âI Have A Dreamâ speech)
Dr. KING: We will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of
hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of
our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will
be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail
together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one
(Soundbite of applause)
Dr. KING: And this will be the day - this will be the day when all of God's
children be able to sing with new meaning:
My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my
fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom
ring. And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let
(Soundbite of song, "My Country, 'tis of Thee")
Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN (Singer-songwriter, pianist): (Singing) My country, 'tis of
thee, sweet land of liberty to thee I sing; land where my father died, land of
the pilgrims' pride. From every, every, every mountain side, let freedom,
freedom, let it ring.
Our fathers, God to thee, father, father of liberty, to thee I sing.
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