by Kitty Kelley
“April is the cruelest month,” wrote the poet T.S. Eliot, and for followers of Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1968, was the cruelest day. At 6:01 p.m. on that Thursday, the beloved preacher of nonviolence was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
Hours later, riots erupted throughout the country as angry mobs smashed windows, trashed stores, and blew up cars, leaving dozens dead and more than 100 cities smoldering. President Lyndon Johnson finally summoned the National Guard to restore order.
More than five decades later, some scars remain, but Dr. King’s dream of a beloved community still shines, even in the poorest pockets of the country. I recently joined Stanford University’s “Following King: Atlanta to Memphis” tour, led by Professor Clayborne Carson, senior editor of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Vols. I-VII. Traveling by bus for a week — masked, in the era of covid — we patronized only minority-owned hotels and restaurants.
We began in Atlanta with a visit to Dr. King’s last home, the one he purchased after winning the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. We toured the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and learned from a freshman at Morehouse College why he values his education on the 61-acre campus of one of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), which is close to Spelman College, an HBCU for women:
“We both fall under the umbrella of Atlanta University Center, so we can attend classes on either campus…Our slogan here at Morehouse is ‘Let There be Light,’ and while it’s prevalent in my generation [Class of 2025] not to speak your mind lest you be canceled, here, people are not making fun of you or out to cancel you. They tell us: ‘Say your ignorance in class so you don’t say it in the world.’”
Before leaving Atlanta, we visit the Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual home of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock now serves every Sunday as pastor. The rest of the week, he serves as Georgia’s junior senator in the U.S. Senate.
Boarding the bus, we headed for Montgomery, Alabama, home of the Confederacy, where we visit the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, created by Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the nonprofit that guarantees the defense of any prisoner in Alabama sentenced to death. For many of us, this is the most upsetting museum on the tour because it forces you to see the terrible connection between 1865 and today.
The EJI has identified more than 4,000 Black men, women, and children who were lynched. At the site’s center hang 800 rusted steel monuments, one for each county in the U.S. where documented lynchings took place. Entering the museum, we were confronted with replicas of slave pens, where we saw and heard first-person accounts from enslaved people describing what it was like to be ripped from their families and await sale at the nearby auction block. We learned what “sold down the river” means: Many enslaved people were punished with a transfer from the North to harsher conditions in the South. Etched in bronze is Harriet Tubman’s quote, “Slavery is the next thing to hell.”
On a nearby street corner, we meet the artist Michelle Browder, who showed us her outdoor gallery honoring “Mothers of Gynecology”; her 15-foot-high sculptures depict three enslaved women subjected to brutal experiments for “supposed” medical advancement.
From Montgomery, we were bused to Birmingham (aka “Bombingham”) and the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls were killed by a bomb as they prepared to sing in their choir on September 15, 1963. The pastor’s undelivered sermon that Sunday was entitled “A Love that Forgives.”
Weeks before, 300,000 people had gathered peacefully on the National Mall in Washington, DC, to hear Dr. King’s soaring “I Have a Dream” speech. Later, he was jailed in Alabama. While there, he wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on scraps of paper and bits of toilet tissue that his lawyer smuggled out piece by piece on each visit. Dr. King’s message berated white moderates “devoted to order, not to justice,” particularly those white church leaders “more cautious than courageous.”
From Montgomery, we traveled to Selma to meet our no-nonsense guide in the projects. “We’re in the ‘hood now, so if you hear a pop-pop, duck,” she said. People on the bus squirmed as she delivered her blunt commentary:
“Selma is a city of barely 20,000, and 80 percent of us are African American, still living in the poorest wards…Voting registration has shrunk because folks ask, ‘What’s voting done for us?’ We’re a broken economy, a broken community…Hate groups study us as a failed model of Democratic policies.”
Rain fell as we walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a Confederate general and Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and the site of “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, when police attacked Civil Rights marchers with horses, clubs, and tear gas.
We later stopped in Meridian and Jackson, Mississippi, enroute to Memphis, where we visited the Lorraine Motel, with its white plastic wreath of blood red roses marking the spot on the second-floor balcony where Dr. King was assassinated. The plaque beneath reads:
“They said one to another,
Behold, here cometh the dreamer,
Let us slay him
And we shall see what will become of his dream.”
– Genesis 37.19-20
The motel site has been expanded into a complex of buildings incorporated as the National Civil Rights Museum in 1991, the first in the U.S. dedicated to telling the Black Civil Rights story. It’s also been called “The Conspiracy Museum” because its second floor, entitled “Lingering Questions,” chronicles the capture and arrest of James Earl Ray and explores myriad conjectures about whether Dr. King’s killer acted alone.
Outside on the street, a tiny woman named Jacqueline Smith protests the $27 million museum complex. She weighs no more than 90 pounds, but her outrage is ferocious. She’s been standing on the corner every day since 1988, when she was evicted from the motel to make way for the museum’s construction.
“What’s the point of all this?” she asks. “What does this rich museum offer the needy, the homeless, the poor, the hungry, the displaced, and the disadvantaged? Dr. King said: ‘Spend the necessary money to get rid of slums, eradicate poverty.’ This museum was built with non-unionized labor. Dr. King was all for unionized workers. This museum celebrates his murderer… does the John F. Kennedy Library celebrate Lee Harvey Oswald?”
Someone starts to speak, but Jackie brooks no interruption. “Why don’t you white people do what’s right for a change?”
Quietly, we return to our bus, edified by Dr. King’s vocal disciple.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
A hero is someone who can be admired without apology: no excuses, no explanations. A rara avis such as Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr., plus two pandemic saviors from the 1950s, Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, who each discovered polio vaccines but forfeited all financial profit from their discoveries for the benefit of mankind. On July 17, 2020, the pantheon of heroes expanded when 80-year-old Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) went to the angels.
As a youngster in Troy, Alabama, Lewis went to the public library with his nine siblings to get a library card but was told the place was “for whites only and not for coloreds.” That rejection lit a candle in the little boy, who became a non-violent disciple of Dr. King and trained to be a community organizer.
At the age of 23, he began marching for civil rights when he walked over the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery and was beaten by Alabama’s “finest” on “Bloody Sunday.” Lewis fell to the ground and curled up in the “prayer for protection” position he’d been taught. He let his five-foot-seven body go limp as troopers walloped him with billy clubs. Lewis then staggered up, dripping with blood, and managed to make a speech denouncing the commander-in-chief of the United States:
“I don’t know how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam, I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo, I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa, and can’t send troops to Selma.”
The president was listening. Five months later, in 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act to remove all race-based restrictions at the ballot box. The law remained in effect until 2013, when the Supreme Court ruled that Congress must update the act for it to continue to be applicable.
Republicans refused. Democrats objected as certain states passed laws creating barriers to voting particularly aimed at disenfranchising minorities. In recent months, Republicans have blocked every attempt to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would make the required fixes. The battle continues today, dividing the country along bitter partisan lines.
During his lifetime of principled protest, Lewis was thrown in jail over 40 times, but he never stopped marching or “getting into good trouble,” as he called it, until his death in the summer of Black Lives Matter. In 1998, he wrote Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, which is required reading in many high schools and colleges. Years later, in an effort to reach young people, “the ones to continue the struggle,” Lewis wrote a trilogy of black-and-white comic books to illustrate the Civil Rights Movement.
Now, the principles that ignited his lifetime of protests for civil rights, voting rights, gun control, healthcare reform, and immigration rights can be found in this slim John Lewis: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. It’s a small book about a big man who speaks plain words as he presents a primer on peaceful protest:
“We believed that our struggle was not a struggle that lasts for a day or a few weeks or a few months or a semester. It was a struggle of a lifetime…You have to pace yourself for the long, hard…struggle. And you have to come to the point of accepting nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living…The struggle is not between Blacks and whites…but a struggle between what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil, between the forces of justice and the forces of injustice.”
John Lewis never gave up hope for “the beloved community,” a society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love for all. His hope, like that of Emily Dickinson, was a “thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
Kitty Kelley spoke on December 8, 2014 at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence 4oth Anniversary Celebration in Washington D.C.:
This is an evening I’ve been looking forward to because it gives me a chance to be in a room with people I consider royalty who are enlightened and represent a sense of values that I have long admired. So I come here tonight to pay tribute to each of you for your commitment to stop gun violence.
I salute you because you have refused to be defeated by huge odds. You have not become disillusioned by the political failure in this country to legislate gun control; you have not been intimidated by the N.R.A. You have stood tall and you have not wavered. You are clear-eyed about the obstacles but you focus on your high purpose, which is to bring us back to our humanity. And in the words of that old spiritual sung by those who marched for Civil Rights–you shall not be moved.
Everything about this organization underscores humanity. You named yourself a “coalition” which by its very definition embraces outreach to others–of different religions, different regions, different races. Your roots spring from the hopeful days of the Civil Rights movement for justice and equality. To date your organization covers 47 different organizations which share your mission of non-violence. One purpose, many people.
When President Kennedy addressed the nation on Civil Rights in 1962, he said, “This is not a legal or legislative issue alone. We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American constitution.”
But old as it might be and clear as it might seem, it sometimes looks impossible to achieve. Yet Martin Luther King, Jr., never lost hope. He told us that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” He said that arc would lead us to a place of peace for all humanity. He called the place the Beloved Community.
And tonight I feel like I am in the middle of that Beloved Community because for 40 years you have given your time, your talent and your treasure to stop gun violence. You have held faith in the worst of times even as we are still reeling from Ferguson, Missouri, and Trayvon Martin and too many school shootings to recount.
Some days it’s hard to believe that the arc of the moral universe is ever going to bend, but this Coalition keeps us on course, and remind us in the words of Abraham Lincoln that “To sin by silence makes cowards of men.” This Coalition helps us all be brave, to stand up, to speak out, and to not be moved.
Your mission is more than an act of faith, or a statement of hope in a noble cause. It’s a real vow, a pledge of allegiance, and a promise to help us reclaim our humanity and to live in a civilized world.
So you have great reason to celebrate tonight and on the occasion of your 40th anniversary I salute each one of you–and none more so than your founder, Mike Beard, the man who brought us together. Mike marched with Martin Luther King and he worked for John F. Kennedy. He saw in both men the best hopes for America, and when both were struck down by gun violence, Mike found his cause and this Coalition. For those of us who never marched with Dr. King and never knew President Kennedy, Mike has bound us to their legacies, and for that we owe him our deepest thanks.
Kitty Kelley donated copies of Let Freedom Ring for those attending the Celebration, with a letter from her enclosed:
Kitty Kelley appeared on C-Span2’s Book-TV “In Depth” program on Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, answering questions from host Peter Slen and from viewers for three hours. The show may be viewed online here.
by Kitty Kelley
President Kennedy had to be pushed but after two bloody summers of Freedom Riders, television coverage of Bull Connors’ police dogs chewing children to bits, police men clubbing peaceful demonstrators and fire hoses slamming children against jagged brick buildings, leaving them torn and bleeding, JFK found his voice. He watched with disgust as Alabama Governor George Wallace, who had pledged “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever,” threatened to stand in the school house door to prevent two black students from integrating the state’s all-white university. That evening, June 11, 1963, John F. Kennedy ennobled his presidency with an address to the nation on equal rights:
We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution…. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best schools available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him…then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed? Who among us would then be content with counsels of patience and delay?
Next week I shall ask the Congress of the United States to make a commitment it has not fully made in this country to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law.
The President’s approval plummeted from 60 to 47 percent after his speech, and he and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, began counseling “patience and delay,” pleading with Civil Rights leaders to call off their scheduled March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Fearing violence and re-election in 1964, the administration said the March would do more harm than good. “We want success in Congress, not a big show at the Capital,” said the President.
Kennedy summoned Civil Rights leaders to the White House to try to dissuade them but they remained resolute. The President relented and then called his brother: “Well, if we can’t stop them, we’ll run the damned thing.”
The March organizers agreed to demonstrate on a Wednesday so people would get back to their jobs and not stay the week-end. Parade permits were granted from 9 a.m to 5 p.m so that marchers would leave the city before dark. Schools, bars, restaurants and stores were closed. All elective surgeries in area hospitals were cancelled to free up 340 beds for riot-related emergencies. The DC National Guard spent the summer training for riot duty and 2400 Guardsmen were sworn in as “special officers” with temporary arrest power. The city, including leaders like Mrs. Agnes E. Meyer, whose family owned The Washington Post and Newsweek, predicted “catastrophic outbreaks of violence, bloodshed and property damage.” The government closed the day of the March and federal employees were told to stay home.
The comedian Dick Gregory was amused by the fears of the white establishment. “I know the senators and congressmen are scared of what’s going to happen,” he said. “[But] I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. It’s going to be a great Sunday picnic.” To the Kennedy administration it looked like it was going to be a great big political fiasco.
Weeks in advance, the March, set for August 28, 1963, became global news as Civil Rights activists around the world announced that they, too, would march in Berlin, Munich, Amsterdam, London, Oslo, Madrid, The Hague, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Toronto, and Kingston, Jamaica. Celebrities chartered planes from Hollywood’s progressive community, including Harry Belafonte, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Gregory Peck, Billy Eckstein, Lena Horne, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tony Bennett, even Charleton Heston. Burt Lancaster flew from his movie location in Paris, and the dancer and jazz singer Josephine Baker arrived from France in her Free French uniform.
Even with unprecedented police presence on the Mall, the President was so concerned about hot rhetoric stirring the crowds to violence that he positioned one of his advance men behind the sound system at the Lincoln Memorial ready to flip a special switch to cut the public address system, if necessary, and play a recording of Mahalia Jackson singing, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
The day dawned with Washington’s usual summer swamp humidity but most of the 250,000 marchers arrived in their Sunday best. Women donned hats and high heels; men wore white shirts and ties. They dressed for church; their mission was religious—to heal sick hearts and open closed minds.
They marched and sang and swayed to the soaring sounds of the Freedom Singers and Odetta and Marian Anderson; they sat ten- deep at the Reflecting Pool, many dangling their feet in the water like pilgrims who once gathered at the Sea of Galilee.
They cheered the speakers, and then they rose and roared in unison for the spell-binding finale of Martin Luther King, Jr., who had come to tell them about his dream for America “that one day the nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
The vast throng of humanity erupted into thunderous applause with each crescendo of Dr. King’s dream. In the rising cadence of a master spell-binder, he told America that if it was to become a great nation, it must make the dream of freedom come true for its black citizens. Even President Kennedy, watching on television, was transfixed. “He’s good. He’s damn good.”
The President had refused to participate in the March, but he invited the Civil Rights leaders to the White House at the end of the day. He greeted Dr. King by shaking his hand and saying, “I have a dream.”
Bubbling over with the success of the day which had occurred without one incident of violence, the President told reporters that he was edified by the speeches, the singing, the crowds—the entire event. “The nation can be properly proud of this march,” he said.
Photos from Let Freedom Ring: Stanley Tretick’s Iconic Images of the March on Washington, ©Estate of Stanley Tretick, used with permission.
Cross-posted from Huffington Post
Bestselling author Kitty Kelley goes behind the lens of legendary Look photographer Stanley Tretick to capture a pivotal moment in our nation’s history: The March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Most of these extraordinary photos have never been seen before.
Let Freedom Ring: Stanley Tretick’s Iconic Images of the March on Washington will be published by Thomas Dunne Books in August 2013 in hardcover and ebook formats.