It was 50 years ago today when Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. He was just 39 years old. We turn now to a conversation Democracy Now! recently had with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch and writer Trey Ellis, who both worked on the new HBO documentary King in the Wilderness, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The film recalls the last three years of King’s life, beginning after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite passage of the monumental legislation, King set his eyes on new battles by launching a Poor People’s Campaign and campaigning to stop the Vietnam War. King’s decision to publicly oppose the war isolated him from many of his closest supporters.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: It was 50 years ago today when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, just 39 years old. We turn now to a conversation I recently had with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch and with writer Trey Ellis. They both worked on the new HBO documentary called King in the Wilderness, which premiered at Sundance, where we spoke, but went on HBO this week. The film recalls the last three years of King’s life, beginning after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I began by talking to Taylor Branch, who wrote the America in the King Years trilogy.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about those last three years, where Dr. King is moving north. And he would say, at that time, he was never so afraid as he was in Chicago. I mean, for all that he faced in the South, Chicago —
TAYLOR BRANCH: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: — the Northern United States.
TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, within a month of Selma, in 1965, he was saying, “We have to go north.” And the staff, including Diane, did not want him to go, did not want to go north. “We still have work to do in the South.” That’s what she said. But King became more determined. He was reluctant in the early years. He was trying to make the movement climb up. He gets the Nobel Peace Prize. Andy Young said, “We wanted to have chicken dinners and congratulate ourselves for 20 years.” He says, “No, we want to go to Selma.” As soon as Selma was done, he says, “We want to go north to show America that the race issue has never — is not, and never has been, purely Southern.” And the staff didn’t want to go.
Then he — all the staff, except for one person, was against his coming out and making the Riverside Church speech against Vietnam. And none of the staff — the film shows how much staff dissension there was on the Poor People’s Campaign, and then on Memphis. So, there was a downward pull of King in the last years, where he felt compelled to make a witness on things that he didn’t have confidence were going to be big breakthrough moments like “I Have a Dream” or the Civil Rights Act of 1965. So, he’s in the wilderness, and he’s lonely, but he is much more of a leader, almost a possessed leader. “We have to do this.” He even made a speech to his staff saying, “We have to finish. There’s a quote in Revelation: ‘We have to finish on our principles, even if we have very little left.'”
AMY GOODMAN: Can you take us on the trajectory of the Mississippi March — this is after the Selma to Montgomery March, this is James Meredith — and why King decided to join this, through the whole challenge by Stokely Carmichael, who would later become Kwame Ture? Some incredible footage there of them publicly sort of feuding, or it was more a battle of ideas of who should be included in the march. But start with Meredith.
TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, the Meredith March was a watershed in the public perception of the movement. It was the birth of Black Power. Stokely had just taken over the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from John Lewis. Lewis was ousted because he was too much like Martin Luther King, too steadfast in nonviolence. And when Meredith got shot, Dr. King and Stokely were thrown together in continuing his march through Mississippi.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what happened to James Meredith.
TAYLOR BRANCH: James Meredith was — had his own solo March Against Fear to try to inspire black Mississippians, who were afraid to go to the courthouse to register to vote after the Voting Rights Act. And he said, “If I can march through Mississippi by myself, then you shouldn’t be afraid to register.” But on the third day out, he was shot by white people who were angry that he was trying to rally black people to vote.
And civil rights leaders, many of whom weren’t — they weren’t consulted about this march, but they felt they had to continue it, because it was so public. And it threw Dr. King together with the new SNCC leader, Stokely. And Stokely said, openly, that he used the fact that all the press came with Dr. King to announce this new doctrine to make the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee not be so much second fiddle. They had always felt Dr. King got all the publicity, and they were spending more time in jail.
And he pronounced this new doctrine: “We want Black Power!” And it mesmerized the media. To this day, I mean, it’s more popular. There are a lot of nonviolent movement veterans who are embarrassed that they were nonviolent, because Black Power became so popular. And Dr. King would argue with Stokely, marching down the road, and there are scenes of that. But then, at night, they would argue.
AMY GOODMAN: With a reporter between them —
TAYLOR BRANCH: With a reporter between them.
AMY GOODMAN: — holding a mic, going back and forth.
TAYLOR BRANCH: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And also the inclusion of non-black activists in the movement.
TAYLOR BRANCH: Yes, but — well, yes, they wanted — the march was very integrated, the March Against Fear. Remember, it’s 220-something miles. It went on for almost a month. It’s bigger than the Selma March.
But its significance is that it marks this big transformation between violence and nonviolence, or the opening of a debate. And Stokely would say, “How come we have to be nonviolent? How come America admires nonviolence only in black people, but otherwise they admire John Wayne, you know? And why do we have to do that?” And Dr. King would say, “We don’t. I’m not telling you you have to do it. What I’m telling you is that nonviolence is a leadership doctrine. It’s ahead of America. If we become violent, it’s not that we’re stepping up to be like John Wayne. It’s that we’re stepping back from nonviolence to try to move the country toward reconciliation, toward votes, nonviolence, toward spirituality.”
So they had this big argument about whether the civil rights movement needed to be nonviolent, whether it was — whether it was effective, whether it was principled, and what kind of leadership strategy it was. And that debate dominated the last couple years of Dr. King’s life.
AMY GOODMAN: Taylor Branch, you’re a veteran civil rights historian. You won the Pulitzer Prize for Parting the Waters. But you, too, were surprised by some of the footage that you saw in — for King in the Wilderness.
TAYLOR BRANCH: Yes, I was surprised by — I wrote, but I didn’t feel as — I wrote in my book that these thousands of white people would come out and throw bricks. And it was women with pocketbooks, and they’d hit people with pocketbooks, and they’d yell and scream. But to write it is different, based on source material, than to see Nazi signs and people yelling and screaming in Chicago. It was a very rough place.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the swastikas, the presence of these swastikas.
TAYLOR BRANCH: Yes. There were lots of swastikas and lots of young people involved. Now, on the other side, Dr. King was trying to experiment with nonviolence in the North, and, in many respects, it wassafe. There are no stories, as there were in Memphis, of nonviolence breaking down on the movement side in Chicago. In fact, a number of gang leaders would come up to Dr. King’s apartment and argue with him all night, and a number of gang leaders were in those marches. So, he had the Blackstone Rangers and a number of them in these marches. In some respects, it was the far reaches of the laboratory of who could be nonviolent and whether or not it could work.
But what you get out of the film is you see the other side of it. Dr. King said, “We have to show America that there’s a race problem in the North, because you’d be surprised how many millions of people think that there is no more race problem since we passed the civil rights bill.” And in that one little task, they succeeded admirably. Nobody really argued that there was no racism in the North, after Chicago.
AMY GOODMAN: Wasn’t he hit by a brick in Chicago?
TAYLOR BRANCH: He was hit by a brick on that same march, and once or twice by a rock. Of course, he was struck many times, stabbed. You know, violence had always been close to him his whole life, before Memphis. That wasn’t new. But I think, in Chicago, even what Andy said — down in the South, you would have a couple hundred Klansmen, you’d be scared. But in Chicago, there were thousands of people, and they were enraged, and you could hear them. It was an angry crowd.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Vietnam and how King ended up making this Riverside address, speech, “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam.” I wanted to turn to a clip of Vince Harding, before he died. We had a long conversation with him about the speech and his conversations with Dr. King. The man, Vince Harding, who helped to craft that speech, this is what he had to say.
DR. VINCENT HARDING: Martin was, towards the end of his life, you may remember, by the last years of his life, he was saying that America had to deal with three — what he called triple evils: the evil of racism, the evil of materialism and the evils of militarism. And he saw those three very much connected to each other. …
In a way, Amy, as long as Martin and I knew each other, we were talking about the kinds of things that were involved in that speech. We were talking about the tremendous damage that war does to those who participate in it, to those who are the victims of it, to those who lose tremendous possibilities in their own lives because of it. And we were always talking about what it might mean to try to find creative, nonviolent alternatives to the terrible old-fashionedness of war as a way of solving problems.
And then, when Vietnam began to develop on all of our screens in the 1960s, we talked a great deal about our country’s role and a great deal about the role of those of us who were believers in the way of nonviolent struggle for change and what our responsibility was both as nonviolent believers and as followers of the teachings and the ways of Jesus the Christ. So when Martin was clear with himself that he had to make a major public address on this subject, as fully as he could possibly do it, he was looking for a setting in which that could be done on the grounds of his religious stance particularly. And when clergy and laity against the war in Vietnam invited him to do that at Riverside for the occasion of their gathering in April 1967, it was clear to him that that was the place that he really ought to make the speech or to take the stand in the most public way possible.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Vince Harding, a close ally of Dr. King, who helped to craft that “Beyond Vietnam” speech, or “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam,” the speech that Dr. King gave at Riverside Church in New York on April 4th, 1967, a year to the day before Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. Talk about Vince Harding’s role in that speech, Taylor Branch.
TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, Vince Harding was a Mennonite student of nonviolence his whole life, who lived in Atlanta, not far from Dr. King. And when the speech was — when he undertook the speech, for reasons that Trey can explain, it was one of the few that he actually wrote out. He had to have it — a condition of doing this was that they wanted to publicize it and get his views out. They wanted a written version of the speech. Normally —
AMY GOODMAN: That Dr. King wrote out.
TAYLOR BRANCH: Yeah. And normally, Dr. King kind of improvised and winged things. He was like a jazz — but he had to have a formal speech. And he called in a number of people, but, principally, Vince Harding did the first draft of the speech to try to get it right, one moment to speak. And the idea was — the staff didn’t want him to give the speech, but they said, “If you’re going to do it, do it in a way that at least you don’t have — the press will pay attention to it. Don’t do it with a lot of ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids,’ you know, placards in the background. Don’t do it” —
AMY GOODMAN: “How many kids did you kill today?”
TAYLOR BRANCH: “‘How many kids did you kill?’ Don’t — with anything provocative. Do it in a nice setting,” turning to Clergy and Laity Concerned and Dick Fernandez. And Trey interviewed Dick Fernandez about how they went in there. But they were trying to make it as palatable as possible and get the world one chance to listen to his comprehensive argument about the history of Vietnam, about the Vietnamese people, about how they viewed our claims that we were fostering this out of concern for their democratic future. And he crafted this comprehensive speech, and nobody listened to it anyway. They said, “You’re a traitor. You shouldn’t” — it was one of the big disappointments in his life. And —
AMY GOODMAN: And what did King and Vince Harding say?
TAYLOR BRANCH: Next time he saw him — Vince told me that the next time Dr. King saw him in Atlanta, he said, “Vince, you got me really in a lot of trouble, and I’m going to blame you and stuff.” But they survived on gallows humor. And Dr. King was a champion.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Trey, talk more about the significance of this speech. I want to play another clip, this one of Dr. King himself. So many of the phrases he used became so important later.
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America, who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.
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 ask, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” And they ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, 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.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Dr. King saying that his country, the United States, was the greatest purveyor of violence on Earth. The corporate media, the mainstream media, went after him, from the Times to Time magazine to Life magazine. I have the Life magazine copy still. And they talked about the fact — they said that his speech sounded like a script from Radio Hanoi. They said he had done a disservice to his cause, his country and his people. So, for those young people today who say, “It was easy for King, because everything he did, everyone idolized,” he was slammed.
TREY ELLIS: Yeah, it was fascinating for me. We begin, in the documentary, talking about when he sort of nudged into the idea of global politics, talking to Ambassador Goldberg with Andrew Young. And anytime he would try to say anything except for white Southerners shouldn’t segregate, he was pilloried. So they really tried their best, as Taylor said, to say, “How can we make this strong statement as innocuous, as palatable as possible?”
AMY GOODMAN: And what happens after, a year to the day before he’s assassinated, that speech, is what King says.
TREY ELLIS: Yeah, it’s just amazing, the coincidence that a year to the day after that speech he’s gunned down in Memphis. But the backlash against the speech wasn’t only the media or the white community. It was also Roy Wilkins and the NAACP. All the black clergymen were very concerned. And even inside the SCLC, they were very concerned.
AMY GOODMAN: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
TREY ELLIS: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he led, they were concerned. Their money dried up. He had no friends. And that’s when Xernona says — Xernona Clayton, his great adviser, who begins our film, says he died of a broken heart. That’s really one of those great reasons, that everybody seemed to have turned against him, with his turn against the war.
AMY GOODMAN: Trey, explain this last year of Dr. King’s life, the Poor People’s March.
TREY ELLIS: Well, so, after the coming out against the war in Vietnam — and he’s really at his lowest point. Some people might say, and Andy Young would say, “You deserve it. If you want to just be — you know, take over Riverside Church and live in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, you know, you deserve it.” Right? He said, no, he still wanted to fight longer.
And the first interview I did was with Marian Wright Edelman. And when she said that — we have her on tape saying, when she came to — when she visited the poor in Mississippi with Bobby Kennedy, and Bobby Kennedy said to her, “Tell King to bring the poor to Washington,” which goes to Taylor’s point about having the public/private, how governance works best, how King and LBJ could work together — when she brought that message to King, she goes into his office, he’s very, very sad. She tells him this idea from Bobby Kennedy and her, and he lights up.
And it’s really — I think he saw this as like this — and he talks about this march on Washington, this Poor People’s Campaign. He really envisioned it as bigger than the “I Have a Dream” speech. He figured this as like this would be all Americans — white, black, Hispanic. All poor people would march on Washington, and real big transformative change. And when you see that it’s — the plans for that march and what could have been in that march cut short by this assassin’s bullet, this murderer’s bullet, it’s really quite heartbreaking.
AMY GOODMAN: Taylor Branch?
TAYLOR BRANCH: One reason that he may have lit up so much is this idea of racism, poverty and war, that you mentioned. He called it the “triple scourge of evil.” Andy Young mentions it in the film. That was not a new idea for Dr. King. It’s the theme of his Nobel Prize lecture, that they are related — racism, poverty and war, the violence of the flesh and violence of the spirit. So, he had done racism. He had done war, in Vietnam. And poverty is equally violent, in his worldview. So, an opportunity to make an explicit witness on the third leg of this, what he called the “ancient triple scourge” of racism, poverty and war, I think, was something that he knew he needed to do to make his message complete, because he had been speaking about this, but he hadn’t been demonstrating on poverty.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s move on to Memphis and this — not the final moment of Memphis, but it was in two parts. And again, we’re talking about enormous tension within the SCLC and Dr. King’s closest advisers being concerned about King going to Memphis. He had been invited to stand with the sanitation workers as they tried to unionize.
TAYLOR BRANCH: I will just talk a little bit about the origins of Memphis. The staff — he had — it took, as the film shows, an enormous effort to get the staff behind the Poor People’s Campaign. There were a lot of dissension. Some people said, “If you don’t end the Vietnam War, it doesn’t matter what we do.” And other people said, “We still have segregation in the South and in the North, and we should be on race relations.” So he finally gets them to going on the Poor People’s Campaign and their plans, and then this incident happened in Memphis.
The strike started because two of the sanitation workers were crushed to death in the back of a cylinder garbage truck, when they were not allowed to seek shelter in rainstorms, because they were all black, and their rules did not allow them to seek shelter in any white neighborhood, because it offended white people. And the only place they could find shelter is in the garbage, with the garbage itself. And a broom fell and hit a lever and compacted them, literally crushed them. That’s the origins of “I Am a Man,” meaning they picked that slogan because the whole strike was — it was economic, but it was also just essential dignity. They were being crushed like the garbage that they were picking up, and nobody cared.
AMY GOODMAN: So they carried these signs that said “I Am a Man.”
TAYLOR BRANCH: They carried these signs. And the person that was leading the demonstrations, Jim Lawson, was one of Dr. King’s old mentors in nonviolence. And he calls him and says, “Martin, can you come?” And so, that’s where the — Trey did most of the interviews about Memphis, but that’s where it was. He said, “I have to go to Memphis. If we don’t answer this — yes, it’s a diversion, but it’s from Jim Lawson, and if these people don’t personify what the Poor People’s Campaign is going to be about, nobody does.” So he once again drags his staff to Memphis as a diversion from Poor People’s Campaign.
TREY ELLIS: Yeah, I think it’s —
AMY GOODMAN: So, Trey, take it from there.
TREY ELLIS: Well, I think what’s really amazing about it, we have this — every time that, you know, when he wanted to go north, when he wanted to go against the war, he was getting this pushback from his staff. And then, now there’s such dissent, that they actually — he has a little hunger strike, right? That like he’s just — it’s the first time that, Andy Young will say, that he can’t get through to them. And he just has to do something really extreme, so they will — they will listen to him.
To me, an extraordinary moment is like when he goes to the first Memphis March, and it goes badly, and some people, for some — it’s unclear what all their reasons were, but some people in the back are taking those “I Am a Man” wooden placards and using them to break some windows, or they’re agent provocateurs. Things are happening, and the march is a disaster. I am most impressed by Dr. King when he’s on the film and he says, “Yes, it was terrible, and I should have done a better job organizing this march. I shouldn’t have just jumped in, and sight unseen, into this march.” You never see — there’s not a single politician I’ve ever heard in my life who would admit to that kind of a mistake. And then, when he comes back, he’s really redoubling his efforts to come back next time and make it right.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the clip of Dr. King the night before he was killed. This was April 3rd, 1968.
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! 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!
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Martin Luther King, speaking April 3rd, 1968. He was assassinated less than 24 hours later in Memphis, 50 years ago today, April 4th, 1968. Visit democracynow.org to watch our full conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch, Trey Ellis and Peter Kunhardt, director of the HBO documentary King in the Wilderness.