By Tilesha Brown, Special to the AFRO
April 4, 1968.
It’s a date that will forever be remembered as the day Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot on the balcony of the Black-run Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.
On that day, he was on his way to Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles’ house for a soul food dinner when he was shot. Kyles was standing there as the gun went off and the bullet found Dr. King.
One day before his death, King had spoken to a large crowd at the Mason Temple Church of God In Christ just a mile away. Bishop J. Louis Felton, the current pastor of Mt. Airy Church of God in Christ in Philadelphia, was there as part of the garbage workers’ strike that was going on in Memphis.
According to Felton, it was a cold and stormy day and everyone could tell that Dr. King was tired and emotionally drained. It was a well-known fact by the time he approached the podium that he hadn’t even planned to be there. And when King declared in that speech that he had seen the promised land, everyone in the place felt something.
“You got the impression that he knew something was about to happen— you felt it,” Felton told the AFRO, “When you get this premonition that it’s showdown time, your whole mood changes.”
In retrospect, Felton said that God actually had added another week to King’s life because his speech and that protest were actually scheduled for the last week in March. However, that year, Memphis was hit with an unusually heavy snowstorm that pushed everything to the first week in April.
“God wanted King to live a few more days,” Felton said. “He lived right in the presence of death every day, but this night it was stronger than it had ever been.”
He learned that detail from Kyles, whose family had cooked for King that night. King gave the distinct impression that he would not make it to see 40.
“I may not get there with you,” King told the Kyles family. “But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
When he walked out of that motel room at approximately 5:45 p.m., just moments passed before the shot rang out. And very shortly after his death, the rioting began.
“It was like being in a state of war,” Felton recalls, “because we believed it was an act of war. I believe it was an act of terrorism.”
It was a scene of disarray, he said, hearts were sunken everywhere. They had lost their leader, and according to Felton, they knew no one would ever fill that void.
“King had something that no one else had,” he said.
As the news hit the national press, unrest immediately broke out across the nation. And it didn’t take long for it to explode in Baltimore.
Jacqueline Caldwell, president of the Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council, still lives in the same neighborhood that she lived in when the riots began on Monroe Street.
“I was in second grade and I just remember thinking ‘Why is this happening in my neighborhood?’
She remembers that it was on TV in black and white and people were crying profusely in her house. She wasn’t allowed to go outside, but she could see the violence clearly out of her window as it made its way through her neighborhood.
Authorities had put a curfew into effect and there was rioting in the streets. The nation was in an uproar. According to both Caldwell and Felton, it took years for these cities to regroup.
And that’s why Caldwell says it was difficult to see that kind of violence erupt again right in her face in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray.
“I was shielded from it when I was a kid,” she says, “I only saw it from my window, but this time it was really upsetting to see it up close and in real time.”
Bishop Felton agrees. But they also are both encouraged by people like King’s granddaughter who spoke at last weekend’s March for Our Lives Rally.
“Her speech resonates with what King was about: nonviolent, proactive, and effective change,” Felton Says, “It means that the legacy of King not only survived but it thrives.
It means that fifty years later, the dream is still alive.