Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Recalling "Young Moses"

By Jackson Baker

APRIL 13, 1998:  The weekend of remembrances for the late Dr. Martin Luther King begins strangely:

There, at the vestibule of historic Clayborn (AME) Temple on Hernando St. on Friday morning is the Rev. James Lawson, ex- of the Memphis ministry and now of Los Angeles, an impressive figure whose hair, gone white in the 30 years since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, crowns him now as the patriarch he is.

Lawson is one of those – like the Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles, like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and so many others among the several thousand gathered in Memphis to mark the anniversary of the martyr’s assassination – who were there, either at the Lorraine Motel or close by when Dr. King was felled by a 30.06 rifle bullet at almost 6 on the evening of April 4, 1968. His hair was dark then, but his voice could not have been any stronger than it is today, as he dilates upon the theme of “Chaos or Community?” – which happens also, as Lawson notes, to be the title of King’s last published work.

Striking a note which others will also intone this weekend, out loud or in print, Lawson disdains the familiar term “civil rights movement” as a descriptor of his and Dr. King’s mission: “We called ourselves a liberation movement, a freedom movement, a justice movement, a movement to transform America … to redeem the soul of America.” It was a movement “not only for black people, or for the defeat of white people,” he says.

It was a movement, Lawson explains, that concerned itself with strikes (notably, of course, the 1968 strike of Memphis sanitation workers which would be Dr. King’s last crusade) and with nuclear weaponry and with the condition of working people in general. It was all of this – and no mere issue of color – that delivered Martin Luther King to his “crucifixion” in Memphis.

There is much in that vein, and Lawson says it both majestically and convincingly persuasively. There is also, however, a compulsion to confer blame. Mayor Willie Herenton is unnamed, but he is the obvious target of a brief phillipic Lawson delivers against the tear-gassing of protesters at the ill-fated Ku Klux Klan rally in Memphis.

It is on the subject of the assassination, however, that Lawson becomes most intense and accusatory. He talks, as other conspiracy theorists have, of the alleged removal of police protective units from the care of Dr. King on the fateful night, of “two” white Mustangs parked on Main St., of “witnesses” who could swear that James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin, did not fire the murder weapon.

Rev. James Lawson: “The issue is who killed Martin Luther King!”
Photo by John Landrigan
And he names names – among them Claude Armour, the director of police in 1968, and Bill Gibbons, the D.A. of today – to whom he imputes, if not complicity, then at the very least ignominious participation in a coverup. He extols Judge Joe Brown – recently removed by the state Court of Appeals, because of his alleged bias, from hearing any more of Ray’s petitions – and he mentions the word “Nazi” in suggestive proximity to the name of Mississippi’s Trent Lott, the current Senate majority leader.

Lawson does what he can to exculpate Ray and to explain away his 1969 guilty plea, saying at one point, “The sheriff incarcerated him in such a way as to cause brainwashing and sickness.”

He proclaims, “The issue is not ‘conspiracy,’ it is, ‘Who killed Martin Luther King!’” and he rounds to his peroration: “We will not permit the crucifixion to go and be buried. We will not permit the struggle to be in vain!”

There have been frequent murmurs of approval – even shouts – from the audience. Some in attendance – notably Herenton, Gibbons, and U.S. Representative Harold Ford Jr. – have been more selective in their response.

Among those not on hand is Bill Morris, the Shelby County sheriff (and later county mayor) who in 1968 was seen, in a widely published photograph, leading the captive Ray off to his “incarceration.” Never a segregationist, Morris had black support throughout his political career, sponsored innovative programs for impoverished youth, and delivered an impassioned apostrophe to Dr. King at the 1991 dedication ceremony for the National Civil Rights Museum, mere blocks away in the site of the old Lorraine, where other events will take place on this commemorative weekend.

Morris has nonetheless gone down – albeit anonymously – in the impromptu oral history of James Lawson, taking his place there alongside baritone Lott, that putative Meistersinger from Nuremberg, and all the others.

Friday night’s memorial service at Mason Temple, site of King’s last speech, the uncannily prescient “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” oration, is – to begin with, anyhow – more conventional. Presided over by Kyles, it begins with a processional of pastors and banners from a generous assortment of the city’s churches, both black and white. “Onward Christian Soldiers” is sung impressively by a massed and integrated choir. In his invocation, the Rev. Dr. William Bouknight will plead, “Help us to discover soul brothers and soul sisters of many different races.”

Presiding minister Kyles – who can be less than bashful in holding forth –

promises, “I’m resisting being the kind of M.C. who talks too much.” And, for the most part, he complies. The ceremony includes Kallen Esperian singing “Precious Lord,” the martyr’s favorite hymn, and the massed choir doing a version of “Oh, Happy Day” that fairly rocks. A number of inspirational speakers appear, including such veterans of the civil rights struggle as the Rev. James Netters of Memphis and Dr. Fred Shuttleworth of Birmingham and such political luminaries of the present as Mayor Lee Brown of Houston and U.S. Rep. Ford.

Inevitably, there is the man who bridges religion and politics, as well as the past and the present, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who is introduced handsomely by Kyles as the last person King spoke to before the bullet hit him, the comrade on whom King’s freshly spilled blood was first shed. (For his part, Jackson will authenticate the fact that it was to Kyle’s house for a “soul food” dinner that King intended to go before the lethal shot rang out.)

Though he is here mainly to introduce the keynote speaker of this affair, the Rev. Dr. Gardner C. Taylor of New York, and though his fires – for this or whatever other reason – seem more than a little banked, Jackson is still the preeminent orator of his time, the successor to Dr. King and, perhaps also, to JFK in that respect. He flashes a snapshot of his new grandchild and invokes the social gospel, asking people in the audience to stand if members of their family have suffered from either prostate or breast cancer and pointing out that today’s managed care medicine is pitifully insufficient as a means of dealing with either.

When Dr. Taylor is introduced, he graciously likens himself to a moon in the shadow of Jackson’s sun. “Never has so little been introduced by so much,” he says.

But he goes on to rouse the crowd with a firebrand sermon in which, most memorably, he reiterates Lawson’s earlier doubts concerning the guilt of James Earl Ray and his certainty about the wickedness of the ongoing coverup and promises that God will not permit the inquiry into King’s death to be closed until “we find the truth about who slaughtered our young Moses” in 1968.

The crowd is clearly roused on the point, and Jackson’s earlier reference to “the shot fired by James Earl Ray” seems on its way to be being an overlooked footnote to yesterday’s take on the assassination. The new line has gone beyond law and D.A.’s reports and journalism into politics and, now, into theology.

Even so, the ceremony concludes with audience members, “black and white together,” joining hands and singing “We Shall Overcome.”

Solidarity is the word the next morning as well, when, promptly at 8:30, Jackson, Kyles, the Rev. Bill Adkins and others lead a veritable rainbow coalition in a march from Clayborn Temple to the downtown Convention Center. Visiting reporters, like the Atlanta Constitution’s Arthur Brice, profess awe at the dimensions of the march. “I was prepared for it being a couple of blocks long, but it went on for eight or ten blocks!” says Brice.

Inside the convention center, Adkins presides over a rich panoply of speakers. Some are new, some are repeats from the night before. A couple of speakers break new ground, brandishing “Wanted” posters showing the likeness of Shelby County General Sessions Court clerk Chris Turner, become a public enemy now for “trying to drag Memphis back 30 years” in his refusal to recognize the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) as bargaining agent for his employees.

The Rev. Jackson tries to focus attention on different enemies, on monopolists like Bill Gates, on “Wall Street, the capital of Capital,” on those who stand against “the democratization of capital and wealth,” on what he sees as the true unfinished business of Martin Luther King. But he must also bow to the now dominant mood of skepticism concerning how Dr. King was murdered. “There are unanswered questions,” he says.

And he concludes, rousingly, “Keep marching/ Keep moving! Keep the dream alive!”

In several afternoon seminars at the Convention Center, the unanswered questions receive more scrutiny. White historian Taylor Branch belittles prevailing conspiracy theories in the death of Dr. King. “If there was a conspiracy, it was a truckstop conspiracy involving people like Ray himself” – not the likes of Lyndon Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover, and other high potentates of the past, who in a version pushed this week by Ray’s lawyer of record, William Pepper, and others might somehow have been involved in a conspiracy, with the designated triggerman being one Loyd Jowers, a local short order cook and n’er-do-well who has tried repeatedly to “confess” on national television.

Jesse Jackson tries to focus attention on those who stand against on what he sees as the true unfinished business of Martin Luther King, “the democratization of capital and wealth.”
Photo by John Landrigan
That night, as a candlelight vigil goes on at the Civil Rights Museum, the members of a “Coalition on Political Assassinations” (COPA) hold their penulti­mate session in a small room at the downtown Comfort Inn. There is much self-congratulation in the testimony of these self-proclaimed truth seekers, all white except for Dick Gregory, the gaunt, dignified former comic and all-purpose protester who this night will announce the onset of yet another of his frequent fasts, this one predicated on a new trial for Ray or, failing that, on immediate presidential action to uncover what is so clearly a conspiracy.

Gregory recalls how he once “hit so big” as a comedian that he made $3 million overnight, and he demonstrates why by launching into an impromptu bit of standup that soon has these sobersided men and their equally dour audience of true believers transcending their usual obsession and guffawing wildly. Gregory’s subjects range from a white family’s ability to produce “2 l/2 “ children (“I told my wife, let’s go for that half-child. That’s how I got 10 kids!”) to the severed member of John Wayne Bobbitt to Nicole Brown Simpson’s nocturnal visits to the widower O.J. “The next time she comes, that brother ought to ask her, ‘Hey, who did it, anyhow?’”

“O.J. did it. You know that!” hollers a man in the second row, puncturing the mood and the general laughter and persisting in that literal-minded vein even though the others are trying desperately to shush him. “Hey man, these are just jokes. If you’re that hung up …” says Gregory, before he shrugs his shoulders and resumes, this time in his dead earnest conspiracy-theory mode. The spell has been broken.

Soon, the convicted assassin’s brother, Jerry Ray – bald, potbellied, and wearing droopy white socks with his dress-up pinstripe suit – is introduced to the same prolonged applause from these men as they had previously given the living Dick Gregory and the dead Martin Luther King.

Ray, like his brother a veteran of many jail terms in many states for many crimes, reminisces a bit about how the feds tried to involve him, too, in the King assassination, and, nodding toward Gregory, he extends praise to “the black race” for its diligence in pursuing all these conspiratorial leads.

One test of the prospects for reconciliation in Memphis was the invitation to area churches to ring their bells at the stroke of 6 o’clock on Saturday night. A resident of one of the city’s near suburbs – an area from which some modest white flight has already occurred – stood in his backyard at the appointed time and listened for the sound of bells from either of two churches a block or two away.

Six o’clock came, and for several minutes there was so sound from beyond the wooded area where the churches were. Then, maybe five minutes late, a bell – or a recording of a bell – was heard for the space of a few seconds. Keep the dream alive.Then, silence – and the normal evening traffic noises.

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