Friday, April 4, 2008

Jesse Jackson: I can still hear the gunshot

In an article in today's Chicago Sun-Times, Rev. Jesse Jackson recalls the assassination of Martin Luther King, which occurred 40 years ago today:

Chicago Sun-Times
April 4, 2008

It was 40 years ago this evening, but the memory still makes his voice crack with pain.

Sometimes, the Rev. Jesse Jackson says, he can even hear the gunshot ring out.

"I said 'Doc,' and as I said 'Doc,' the bullet hit -- POW!" Jackson said of the April 4, 1968, assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.

"I hear it sometimes, and I see him lying there. . . . It was a gruesome scene. It was happening so fast. I hear Ralph [Abernathy] saying, 'Get back. Get back. This is my dearest friend.' "

In 1968, Jackson was a 26-year-old aide to King and was among King's inner circle who went to Memphis to rally for striking sanitation workers.

King, standing on the balcony outside Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, had just kidded Jackson about not wearing a tie as they prepared to attend a dinner.

"Doc, the prerequisite for eating is an appetite, not a tie," Jackson said from the courtyard below. "He said 'You are crazy.' And we laughed. And we laughed."

The night before, King had given his famous "Mountaintop" speech, telling a crowd in Memphis: "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."

James Earl Ray's rifle shot the next evening, in hindsight, made those words chilling, prophetic. His bullet killed King -- and lit a fuse that exploded around the nation. The race riots that followed scarred the country, with the devastation still felt today, including on Chicago's West Side, which was set afire and looted.

The Chicago riots lasted for eight days, leaving 11 dead, 500 injured, 3,000 arrested and 162 buildings destroyed.

Jackson, now 66, is in Memphis today to lay a wreath at the old Lorraine Motel, now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.

Some Civil Rights leaders, he said, never returned to Memphis after the bullet was fired, instead internalizing their pain and fears to keep King's dream alive. "I just kind of sucked it up, and we all just keep running on to Washington to do our job," Jackson said. "We determined to not let one bullet kill the movement. That was our determination."

But with the passage of years, Jackson says he thinks about that day more and more.

"We were, you know, stunned. I heard someone say, 'Get low! Get low!' Because whoever shot, if they had sprayed the shots, could have got a number of us in the courtyard. I remember running towards the steps and up the steps. You see a picture of us pointing? Andy Young, Billy Kyles and myself? Because police are coming towards us with drawn guns. We're saying, 'The bullet came from that-a-way, that-a-way.' That's what we were saying.

"The next picture is us over him, bleeding so profusely. I remember Rev. Kyles went and got a blanket to put over his body because it was kind of cool, if I recall, around 6 o'clock in the afternoon. And then Rev. Abernathy came out of the room and said, 'Get back. Get back. This is my dearest friend. Martin, Martin.' But he was really dead then. But Rev. Abernathy was talking to him.

"So I got up and went and called Mrs. [Coretta Scott] King, because they had the phone by his bed. I said, 'Mrs. King, Dr. King just got shot. I think it was in the shoulder.' I really couldn't say what I saw. 'I think it was in the shoulder, but I think you should come over here.'

"She said, 'I will.' I'm sure within a few minutes she got the real word that he had been killed. ... It was too painful. I just couldn't say that. I just couldn't say that he had been killed. I mean, they hadn't pronounced him dead, but it was obvious to me when the bullet had hit his neck. . . . Clearly, it was a direct hit.

"And, oh boy, Lord have mercy," Jackson said, his voice cracking. "I'm pained to talk about it. It hurts now, it still hurts. He was 39 years old."

Over the years, Jackson has faced questions over how close he was to King after the shooting, and how his sweater became stained with King's blood. Photos later surfaced that appeared to show Jackson close enough for the blood to stain.

Abernathy, King's deputy in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, died in 1990. Other witnesses are still alive, though, including Young,, who went on to become Atlanta's mayor, and Kyles, who in a 1990 sermon said he long struggled with why he was chosen to witness such a tragedy.

"I was there to be a witness, and my witness has to be true," Kyles said. "Martin Luther King Jr. didn't die in some foolish, untoward way. He didn't overdose. He wasn't shot by a jealous lover. He died helping garbage workers. The fruits of his labor are with us now. A man with a Ph.D. degree, of all the things he could have been, he chose to use his gifts and his talents 'for the least of these.' "

Jackson believes King would find joy in parts of today's America, including the diversity of the current presidential campaign. But he would also be distressed about the war in Iraq and "the present policies of jobs and investment out, and drugs and guns in. Taxes up, services down. First-class jails, second-class schools."

Still, Jackson believes things have improved since April 4, 1968.

"What we do know is that his death re-energized our struggle," Jackson said. "Many who were falling asleep at the wheel up until that time came alive again. Some in the form of riots. Some in the form of politics.

"But 40 years after his death, we are a different America today. We are more detoxified. More relations. More black, white and brown going to school. In the workplace. We've grown accustomed to the ideas of the new America -- black, white and brown play ball together, go to class together, run for politics together.

"All this is the aftermath of the seeds that he planted."

(Photo: Jesse Jackson (left) stands with Martin Luther King Jr. (center) and SCLC aide Ralph Abernathy on the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 3, 1968. King was shot dead on the balcony the next day on April 4, 1968. Associated Press)

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