King, building on the tradition of civil disobedience and passive
resistance earlier expressed by Thoreau, Tolstoy and Gandhi, waged a
war of nonviolent direct action against opposing forces of racism
and prejudice that were embodied by local police, mayors, governors,
angry citizens and night riders of the Ku Klux Klan.
legal milestones achieved by this movement were the Civil Rights Act
of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In the later 1960s, the targets of King's activism were less
often the legal and political obstacles to the exercise of civil
rights by blacks, and more often the underlying poverty,
unemployment, lack of education and blocked avenues of economic
opportunity confronting black Americans.
Despite increasing militancy in the movement for black power,
King steadfastly adhered to the principles of nonviolence that had
been the foundation of his career. Those principles were put to a
severe test in his support of a strike by sanitation workers in
Memphis, Tenn. This was King's final campaign before his death.
During a heavy rainstorm in Memphis on Feb. 1, 1968, two black
sanitation workers had been crushed to death when the compactor
mechanism of the trash truck was accidentally triggered. On the same
day, in a separate incident also related to the inclement weather,
22 black sewer workers had been sent home without pay while their
white supervisors were retained for the day with pay.
About two weeks later, on Feb. 12, more than 1,100 of a possible
1,300 black sanitation workers began a strike for job safety, better
wages and benefits, and union recognition.
Mayor Henry Loeb, unsympathetic to most of the workers' demands,
was especially opposed to the union. Black and white civic groups in
Memphis tried to resolve the conflict, but the mayor held fast to
As the strike lengthened, support for the strikers grew within
the black community of Memphis. Organizations such as the Community
on the Move for Equality, known as COME, established food and
clothing banks in churches, took up collections for strikers to meet
rent and mortgages, and recruited marchers for frequent
King's participation in forming a citywide boycott to support the
striking workers was invited by the Rev. James Lawson, pastor of the
Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis and an adviser to the
strikers. Lawson was a seasoned veteran of the civil rights movement
and an experienced trainer of activists in the philosophy and
methods of nonviolent resistance.
At that time King was involved in planning with other civil
rights workers for the Poor People's Campaign for economic
opportunity and equality. He was also zigzagging by airplane through
the eastern United States, meeting speaking engagements and
attending important social events as head of the Southern Christian
[to top of second column]
Nevertheless, King agreed to lend his support to the sanitation
workers, spoke at a rally in Memphis on March 18, and promised to
lead the large march and work stoppage planned for later in the
Unfortunately, the demonstration on March 28 turned sour when a
group of rowdy students at the tail end of the long parade of
demonstrators used the signs they carried to break windows of
businesses. Looting ensued. The march was halted, the demonstrators
dispersed, and King was safely escorted from the scene. About 60
people had been injured, and one young man, a looter, was killed.
This episode prompted the city of Memphis to bring a formal
complaint in the district court against King, Hosea Williams, James
Bevel, James Orange, Ralph Abernathy and Bernard Lee, King's
associates in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The outbreak of violence deeply distressed King. In the next few
days he and fellow SCLC leaders negotiated with the disagreeing
factions in Memphis. When assured of their unity and commitment to
nonviolence, King came back for another march, at first scheduled
for April 5.
In the meantime, U.S. District Court Judge Bailey Brown granted
the city of Memphis a temporary restraining order against King and
But the SCLC's planning and training for a peaceful demonstration
had intensified. Lawson and Andrew Young, representing the SCLC, met
with the judge April 4 and worked out a broad agreement for the
march to proceed April 8. The details of the agreement would be put
into place the next day, April 5. This was the message that Young
conveyed to King as they were getting ready to go out to dinner.
Moments later, on that evening of April 4, 1968, as King stepped
out of his motel room before joining his colleagues, he was
[Text from the
National Archives and Records Administration]