America is still fighting for Martin Luther King’s dream 50 years on

Stuart Cosgrove finds King's legacy is fuelling a renewed fight against injustice

On April 4 1968 on a warm spring evening a dream died. A single shot from a pump-action hunting rifle hit Martin Luther King Jr in his right cheek, breaking his jaw, bursting through his vertebrae, and fatally damaging his spinal cord. America’s most famous civil rights activist slumped back on the concrete balcony of the Lorraine Motel, the victim of a sniper – assumed to be the racist criminal James Earl Ray. The shot not only killed King but stigmatised Memphis in the eyes of millions around the world. It is a calumny that still lingers today.

At the time of King’s assassination Memphis was a city struggling to emerge from segregation, with impoverished ghetto communities stretching deep into the city’s Southside. Much has changed but much has stayed the same. Today, Memphis is the sixth poorest among America’s 100 largest cities, 66.1 per cent of residents live in or at risk of poverty and in an area along Crump Boulevard and South 4th Street, not far from the home of Stax Records on East McLemore Avenue, a third of children grow up in a single-mother household, and 80 per cent of them live at or below the poverty line.

King’s death unfairly cast Memphis as a city of hate, and yet beneath the dramatic headlines was a unique story of racial integration. Music was Memphis’s greatest love, and remarkably, it became the crossroads where a new kind of racial tolerance germinated. It was here in Memphis that the diverse threads of rock and soul came together. The city’s most famous son, Elvis Presley, was part of a generation of restless white teenagers that grew up enthralled by black music. More defiantly, Jim Stewart, the founder of Stax Records, began his career as a hillbilly fiddler from a Scottish country-dance band and yet gave life to music steeped in the ghetto. Stewart was a gnomish white bank clerk who had to learn to love black music, and who through the idiosyncrasies of time and place built Stax Records on the back of an unprecedented form of racial integration. His studio band, Booker T and the MGs, were a perfectly calibrated racial mix, composed of two white musicians and two black.

Today, Memphis has turned music into a powerful driver of the local economy. More than 11.5 million people visit the city annually, heading for Graceland, the Stax Museum and Sun Studios. Music tourism is a $3.2bn industry supporting over 35,000 jobs but while the money has transformed once-dilapidated streets in and around Beale Street, the legendary home of the Blues, less has filtered down to blighted inner-city communities.

Many feared that when King was killed, the journey would stall and that the dream of civil rights would be “a dream deferred”

The city’s tourist economy has been strengthened by the recently renovated National Civil Rights Museum, which sits on the site of the old Lorraine Motel, where King was shot. It is an astonishing visitor experience – taking tourists on a journey from slavery to the multiple conspiracy theories that still surround King’s death to this day. In a chilling end-sequence, visitors queue to huddle into an old rooming-house bathroom where the fatal shot was fired from. The perspective down to the motel balcony where King was standing when he was shot makes the visitor feel complicit in the killing. It is a rare moment when a museum is more powerfully realised than a feature film.

March On Memphis
A march in Memphis, April 8 1968. King’s widow Coretta is in the centre in black

The dream that died in Memphis was not the generalised American Dream, it was the dream of emancipation. King had articulated his vision the night before he was shot, in his now historic Mountaintop Speech. He delivered the resounding oratory to the city’s striking sanitation workers at the height of a biblical thunderstorm when he chillingly prophesised his own death. King told the emotionally charged audience that he had been to the mountaintop and had seen the Promised Land, but that he would not be with them to complete the journey. Such was the powerful forewarnings in the speech that many feared that when King was killed, the journey would stall and that the dream of civil rights would be “a dream deferred”.

Those words had reverberated around African-American culture for decades since they were given life by one of black America’s greatest playwrights, Lorraine Hansberry. She had posed the question in her award-winning play A Raisin in the Sun, (1959), a title she had appropriated from the poem Harlem by Langston Hughes. What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore – And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over – like a syrupy sweet

It is uncanny how Black Lives Matter and the anti-gun movement March For Our Lives provoke such powerful resonances of Memphis in 1968

Today, among the leaders of Black Lives Matter and teenage campaigners, enraged by school killings, there is a powerful sense of a dream deferred. A few days before his death, Martin Luther King had made a promise he never kept. He had phoned a grieving mother called Lizzie Payne, who lived near Beale Street in a labyrinthine block of projects known as the Fowler Homes. Payne’s son Larry had been shot dead by a Memphis police officer in March 1968 after small-scale rioting on the fringes of one of King’s earlier marches. Apparently, the teenager had stolen a television set from the smashed window of a department store. Police pursued him to Fowler Homes, trapping Payne in a basement. According to the Memphis police department’s version of events, Payne attacked an officer with a knife and was shot in self-defence. Neither the knife nor even the television set was ever found and the only surviving evidence, the dead boy’s clothing and the policeman’s gun, were dumped in the Mississippi River to conceal evidence. Enraged by the police’s version of events, residents began a campaign to clear Larry Payne’s name.

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This was nearly 50 years before Black Lives Matter was launched, but the movement has not had to return to history for its causes. They are currently campaigning on behalf of Darrius Stewart, 19, who was shot in the Hickory Hill neighbourhood of Memphis, in July 2015, the victim of a white police officer who allegedly mistook him for someone else.

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The anti-gun March For Our Lives in Memphis on March 24 this year

It is uncanny how Black Lives Matter and the anti-gun movement March For Our Lives provoke such powerful resonances of Memphis in 1968. As recently as March 24, students from campuses across the city joined the nationwide campaign against guns departing from Clayborn Temple, one-time home of the city’s
striking sanitation workers, and gathering at the Civil Rights Museum, where King’s death is so powerfully evoked. The questions they are asking today return full circle to that fatal day in April 1968. How could an escaped convict, using a false alias and fake ID, walk into a gun shop and buy a Remington hunting rifle with crumpled cash? How could he then drive undetected from Alabama to Memphis and kill King? It is a question that still remains unanswered as America’s morbid fascination with guns leaves yet another generation with a dream deferred.

Stuart Cosgrove is the author of Memphis 68: The Tragedy of Southern Soul (Polygon, £16.99)

We’re giving away five copies of Martin Luther King’s Why We Can’t Wait, re-released to mark the anniversary of his death.