Historian explains what led to the assassination of MLK

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Fifty years ago, a bullet ended the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, the bullet did not harm his legacy.

"It's unfinished business for Memphis," historian Hampton Sides said. "It's a very current story. In fact, the story never ended."

Sides devoted three years of his life to investigating King's assassination. He then penned a bestselling book: Hellhound on His Trail.

According to Sides, the story of King's assassination begins on February 1, 1968 near the intersection of Colonial and Sea Isle roads.

Two sanitation workers--Echol Cole and Robert Walker--jumped inside the back their garbage truck to take shelter from the rain.

The truck malfunctioned.

Cole and Walker were crushed to death inside their own truck.

It was the final straw for sanitation workers who'd been calling on Memphis leaders to recognized their union and increase their pay.

"In a peculiar way, they became sacrificial to this larger cause," Sides said. "This notion when King came here saying all labor is valuable. All labor has value. I think we had this notion that these folks were at the bottom. The lowest rung: the lowest echelon of society. They're garbage workers. Of course King is going to recognize that this is precisely where you start this movement."

King and his inner circle had been planning the Poor People's Campaign, a massive, new kind of March on Washington designed to awaken America to economic inequality.

"The whole thrust and objective of the Civil Rights Movement was to effectuate social change and address social injustices," attorney Walter Bailey said. "Dr. King decided that he wasn't going to have the Civil Rights Movement just confined to sit-ins and overcoming segregation. He looked at unfair labor practices being employed by the City of Memphis and decided to join forces to right those wrongs."

"He kind of moved beyond the issue of race and public accommodations and the right to vote and those kinds of basic issues into this much bigger and intractable problem of economic multi-generational poverty. How do you break the cycle? Here we are in Memphis and this garbage/sanitation workers strike breaks out, and it's the perfect manifestation of the larger problem he's trying to single out."

On February 12, more than a week after Cole and Walker were killed on the job, 1,300 sanitation workers went on strike. All of them were black.

The strike strategist, Reverend James Lawson, urged King to come to Memphis and support the strike.

"All of King's advisers were telling him don't go to Memphis: 'It's a distraction.' 'It's a local thing.' 'You've got to focus on Washington.' 'The big march is coming this summer.' He prevailed over all of them. He said, 'No. This is exactly what we need to do, because this is the Poor People's Campaign in miniature right here in Memphis,'" Sides explained.

Special coverage: Interviews with civil rights legends honoring MLK50

On March 28, King marched with strikers from Clayborn Temple to Main Street where a violent, outside group called The Invaders smashed windows and looted businesses.

Memphis leaders enacted a curfew. The National Guard was called in to handle the situation.

Deeply troubled by the violence witnessed during the march, King promised to return to prove a non-violent approach could succeed.

"Dr. King pledged he was going to demonstrate to the world that you can have non-violent, peaceful protest, and the city didn't want to take a chance under Henry Loeb who was the mayor then," Bailey said. "The city decided it would get an injunction to halt any further marches."

Less than a week later, Dr. King returned to address a crowd at Mason Temple.

"Now we're going to march again, and we've got to march again in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be...And force everybody to see the vow of 1,300 of God's children here suffering," King said at Mason Temple in 1968. "Sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights, wondering how this thing is going to come out, that's the issue. And we've got to say to the nation we know how it's coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory...

"We've got some difficult days ahead. But it 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. And 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."

It would be King's last speech.

The next night, he was shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorianne Motel.

"I was at the law library of the law firm that we associated with doing research along with some other lawyers, preparing to get the injunction overturned," Bailey said. "Somebody ran down and told us that he had been shot."

"Dr. King represented a major movement in America at that particular time. It was not just another killing of a person. It was the killing of an idea," Bill Morris said. Morris was Shelby County Sheriff at the time of King's assassination.

The assassination sparked an international manhunt for King's killer: James Earl Ray.

"It's one of the largest manhunts in American history. It was one of the finest hours of the FBI at a time when the FBI was doing a lot of horrible things--trying to ruin the careers of people like King. I found it kind of the ultimate irony that the FBI, the agency that had done everything to ruin the life of King, was the very agency that was tasked with the responsibility of finding his killer," Sides said.

Ultimately, it was Scotland Yard that nabbed Ray. He was at London's Heathrow Airport 65 days after pulling the trigger that ended King's life.

Ray was flown back to Millington, where Morris was awaiting him. Morris arrested Ray as soon as he stepped off the airplane.

Ray entered a guilty plea to avoid the death penalty. He later recanted his confession and claimed to be part of a larger conspiracy, which is one of the reasons Sides traveled around the world for three years investigating the case.

"I am personally convinced that any kind of high-profile killing like this is going to produce multiple conspiracy theories," Sides said. "I get it. I understand why there are conspiracy theories. I will listen to any conspiracy theory as long as it involves James Earl Ray, because he was there. Because he bought the scope. He bought the binoculars. He bought the weapon. He bought the ammunition, and he checked into that flop house hours before the assassination, and he left the scene of the crime within minutes of the assassination in the getaway car, and he admitted to every one of these things. He also admitted--people forget--to pulling the trigger."

"James Earle Ray was following, stalking Dr. King and wherever he got the opportunity, he was going to pull that trigger, whether it was Memphis or Mobile or Atlanta," Bailey said.

Fifty years after an assassin's attempt to end a movement, King's quest for social justice marches on.

"In so many ways I feel we're still recovering from that seismic event, trying to figure out what does it mean? Why did it happen? Why did it happen to us?" Sides said.

"We all live on this planet together and most people recognize that and we're all struggling to make that work," Bailey said.

Copyright 2018 WMC Action News 5. All rights reserved.