MLK’s Final Days: The Rev. James Lawson Remembers King’s Assassination and Support for Memphis Strike

Fifty years ago today in Memphis, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his final sermon, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” Less than 24 hours later, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was just 39 years old. King was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. We speak to Rev. James Lawson, who invited King to come to Memphis to support the strike. At the time, Lawson was the pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis. King called Rev. Lawson “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.”

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the commemorations being held this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader and peace activist was gunned down on April 4th, 1968, at the balcony of his hotel room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was just 39 years old. King was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. Fifty years ago tonight, on April 3rd, King spoke at the Mason Temple in Memphis. It became his final speech.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficulties ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And 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’s 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 50 years ago today in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3rd, 1968. Less than 24 hours later, King was gunned down by a sniper’s bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

We’re joined now by two guests in Memphis. The Reverend James Lawson is a civil rights icon, pastor emeritus of the Holman United Methodist Church in San Diego — in Los Angeles. Lawson was the pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis in ’68, served as chair of the sanitation strike committee. King called Reverend Lawson “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.” He talked about him in this final speech. Reverend Lawson is joining us from Memphis along with historian Michael Honey. Honey is the author of a number of books on Martin Luther King, including the new book To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice, which is out today. Michael Honey’s book of King’s labor speeches is titled All Labor Has Dignity. He won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for his previous book, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Sanitation Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Reverend Lawson —

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: — where were you on April 3rd, 1968, 50 years ago?

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Mostly with Martin Luther King, from early morning throughout the mass meeting that night at Mason Temple. And so, that’s where I was. I was in those meetings. I spoke that night prior to Martin Luther King, introduced also Ralph Abernathy, who then introduced Dr. King.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Dr. King wasn’t feeling well, is that right, that night? He actually didn’t want to come to the church, but Reverend Abernathy called him and said, “I’m not enough. They want you, Martin.” And so he came —

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Well, actually —

AMY GOODMAN: — in the pouring rain. Am I wrong?

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Well, I’ve heard that version. I’ve read that version. But in actual fact, I had agreed to pick up Martin and Ralph Abernathy at the hotel, and we sat in the room talking about an hour before the hour of the mass meeting. King did not say he was ill at that time or didn’t feel well. I think that Martin felt that with the downpour of rain — you cannot imagine one of our Mid-South storms that began that afternoon, and it was pouring out. I think Martin thought that because of the storm, we would not have very many people at that Mason Temple. But there were thousands of people there. So, we finally agreed that Ralph and I would go on, and then one of us would call him if we felt he needed to come. And that’s what happened that evening.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Reverend Lawson, the next day, where were you when you heard the news that Dr. King had been shot and killed?

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Well, again, I was in the movement, in the struggle. That was the day when we were contending in federal court to put aside the city injunction. We were going to march in spite of the injunction, but we did go to court, and the federal court overturned it on that day. So I spent four or five hours with King in the morning and in the evening. I left his — I left his presence maybe about between somewhere between 3:30, 4:00, 4:30, and rushed home at 6:00, after spending some time in the movement’s offices to see what needed to be done, because my family and I kept the discipline in every struggle, no matter — locally, every struggle locally. I came in, in time to have supper with my family — three boys and a wife. So, we did that. I rushed home. And so it was at — I had just walked into the kitchen to greet my wife, and then heard out of my left ear the sound of someone being shot over a television set that was in an alcove next to the dining room. And I went there and saw then the statement across the bottom that Dr. King had been shot.

AMY GOODMAN: What were your thoughts? What flooded through you at that moment, Reverend Lawson?

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Well, remember, I mean, you call King and myself civil rights leaders. The better term for us, by far, the term that we use, that we were pastors. We were pastors who insisted that the gospel of Jesus encompassed all humankind and that the other side of love was justice, so that you could not be a person of character and love if you did not want to see all sorts of people having equality of dignity, equality of work, equality of play. So, that’s the better term for us. I am a Jesus-oriented activist, a pastor for more than 40-some years. The work of economic justice, the work of social justice, the work of cultural justice, the work of the equality of all humankind is a part of my own mind — in my own mind and heart, is a part of what the Scriptures, the Hebrew Scripture and the Christian Scriptures, both firmly and seriously endorse and teach.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we — yesterday, we had on Bill Lucy, who was one of the labor leaders at the time —

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — and also one of the striking sanitation workers. How did you get involved with the sanitation workers’ strike? You became the chair of their support committee. Could you talk about that, as well?

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Well, as a pastor in Memphis, I was one who supported unionism. I happen to think you cannot have — we cannot make our democracy succeed, be effective, if you do not have working people in organized units who can care for their economic benefits and care for their environment, who can care for the issues of justice. We cannot anticipate that the teachers and brokers of plantation capitalism are going to offer economic equality. The people have to do that, so an engaged community, engaged people. And for that to happen, we have to have millions of working people in strong organizations locally, where they can know the issues, see one another, work with one another, to effect change where they live.

AMY GOODMAN: And Dr. King coming to —

REV. JAMES LAWSON: So those — so those who oppose — so those who oppose that are actually wanting to see the failure of this democratic experiment of ours.

AMY GOODMAN: And Dr. King coming to Memphis not once, but twice. The first time, had to leave because the march turned violent — many felt provocateurs were planted in the march — but then, not wanting that to be how he left Memphis, so did return, and the second time, of course, being assassinated?

REV. JAMES LAWSON: Well, he actually was there three times. Martin King was invited, along with Bayard Rustin and Roy Wilkins, of the NAACP, as the speakers from the outside who would help us mobilize our mass meetings and help us to get the word across our community of the efficacy of the sanitation strike, of the rightness of that cause, and of the necessity of all of us in the community who wanted a better land, better city, to support the strike. So, he was invited as one of the people from across the country.

But he represented, of course, the icon of nonviolent action. And a strike is a nonviolent tactic. It’s in the literature of the history of nonviolent struggle. So he was our leader, our icon, our teacher, our philosopher, the man who, in fact, more than any other human being in Western civilization, has said that the violence of Western civilization must change, or, he used the word, there will be “co-annihilation,” co-nonexistence. No other spokesperson of the Western world has clearly insisted that violence is sin. Violence is unjust. Violence despises human beings. Violence prevents the emergence of new forms of human communication and human understanding, so that violence itself is a part of the problem, a part of the crime against the human race.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this discussion. And we’ll also be joined by Michael Honey, who’s sitting next to Reverend James Lawson in Memphis for this 50th anniversary observance of the assassination of Dr. King. Reverend James Lawson, mentioned in this last speech of Dr. King, on this day 50 years ago. The civil rights icon, the former head of the Holman UMC Church in Los Angeles and, before that, pastor of the church in Memphis where the sanitation workers’ strike was based. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Freedom Medley” by our guest Michael Honey. It’s from his album Links on the Chain: Songs of the Labor and Civil Rights Movements. He’s one of the musicians in that song.