Washington in the early months of 1968 was in a restless mood, anticipating the coming of the Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was promising to lead on Washington. His idea was to change the focus of the civil rights movement and make it more inclusive by bringing in what he termed the forgotten Americans: Chicanos, white people from Appalachian states, Asians and Native Americans as well as the people of color for whom he had traditionally campaigned.

Chuck Conconi, right, who covered the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the Washington Evening Star, listens to King’s mentor, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, discuss the Poor People’s Campaign during an April 30, 1968, news conference on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. At Abernathy’s left is A.D. King, brother of Dr. King. Photos by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

It was an especially complicated time for King. His movement, based on the Gandhian principle of nonviolent confrontation, was faltering. When he brought his movement to the North, he had run into angry opposition, especially in Chicago. What also hurt was that he was facing intense, stinging criticism from more radical voices who were impatient with demonstrations they now considered ineffective. Young Black leaders such as Bobby Seal of the Black Panthers, H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael were gaining attention in demanding a more confrontational approach.

King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference were planning the Washington campaign with the construction of a symbolic shack encampment, called Resurrection City, near the Lincoln Memorial. But before he could make any progress, he was talked into leading a demonstration in Memphis, Tennessee, on behalf of embattled garbage workers, who had endured excessively low wages and no health or illness benefits. They were desperate to form a union, and the city’s mayor, Henry Loeb, an avowed segregationist, was adamantly opposed.

Chuck Conconi interviews the Rev. Ralph Abernathy about a month after the April 4, 1968, assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The image was made by Brigido “Brig” Cabe, an official photographer for King who was recruited by Conconi to work at the Washington Star following King’s death.

As a reporter at the Washington Evening Star I had been assigned to cover the March on Washington. I was at an after-deadline lunch when the city editor called me at the restaurant reporting that violence had broken out in Memphis. He was angry since I had written a front-page article in the Sunday paper contending that there was nothing to fear from a King demonstration.

At the office I quickly learned from the wires that rioting had broken out on King’s March 28 march along historic Beale Street and that a person had been killed. I was immediately sent to Memphis, arriving there in the early morning with the city locked down. King and his staff, including his second in command and friend, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, had returned to Atlanta. I followed them there.

As civil rights reporter for the Washington Evening Star, Chuck Conconi had planned to return to Memphis, Tenn., in April 1968 to cover Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s second march in support of the striking sanitation workers there. Instead, Conconi reported on the assassination of King, who was killed April 4, 1968, about 15 minutes after learning that a federal judge would allow the march to take place.

At SCLC headquarters I talked with the Rev. Andy Young, one of King’s top and most effective lieutenants. who would go on to become a United Nations ambassador, a U.S. congressman and mayor of Atlanta. I told him there had been an accusation that King had run from the growing violence. Young countered that SCLC staff leaders had rushed to shield him: “We have to protect him. Someday some cracker is going to kill him, and the entire country will blow up.” Those words would prove to be prophetic on April 4.


I did talk to King, on the plaza in front of the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he was pastor and where his tomb is now. King said he was coming to Washington to deliver a sermon at the Episcopal National Cathedral. I knew about that because I had received a letter of invitation to a brief, formal press briefing from King at a building on the spacious National Cathedral grounds following his sermon.

At the meeting, still in my callow 20s, I was determined to ask King a tough question. It was, as I remember: “Why aren’t you speaking out more forcefully against the war in Vietnam since it is mostly men of color who are fighting and dying there?”

To my surprise and chagrin, King, a man in control of his emotions, became angry. I don’t remember what he said, but I did later learn that I was ill informed. King had fairly recently spoken out on that subject. In writing my story on Monday morning about the National Cathedral sermon, I did not include the comments King had made at the post-sermon briefing. I did write a memo to the desk suggesting I should return to Memphis for the second march that King vowed to lead under the plaintive “I Am a Man” slogan of the garbage workers. In the memo, I included an unfortunate sentence: “We should be prepared to write King’s obituary as a civil rights leader.”

My editors felt that the violence of the previous week wasn’t likely to recur since Memphis was effectively locked down. But on the fateful April 4 evening when President Lyndon Johnson announced from the White House that King had been assassinated, there was a rush for journalists from across the country and the world to get to Memphis. I flew there with my colleague Haynes Johnson, who had won his Pulitzer Prize two years earlier for his coverage of the marches in Selma, Alabama, and the historic walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, with the violence against the demonstrators seen for the first time on home television screens across the United States.

The program for the service that included the sermon “Remaining Awake for Revolution,” delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on March 31, 1968, at Washington National Cathedral. Chuck Conconi wrote about the sermon for the Washington Evening Star.

And what Andy Young had predicted, violence and destruction broke out across the country. Areas of Washington just blocks from the White House were burned, and federal troops were called out with some 13,600 federal, D.C. and National Guard troops guarding the capital. Eventually 13 people would die in the rioting, nearly 2,000 were injured and more than 7,000 were arrested.

It was the nightmare scenario Washington had feared. The Poor People’s Campaign did come to the capital, starting in Marks, Mississippi, where King was said to have cried after seeing the poverty there. Heavy rains in Washington turned Resurrection City into a quagmire and the SCLC leadership floundered without King’s leadership. His successor, Abernathy, wasn’t up to the task. The subsequent election of Richard M. Nixon, who didn’t have Johnson’s sympathy with the civil rights movement, was the final blow from which the movement never fully recovered.

Times of restless, emotional crisis and painful tragedies are apparently inescapable, but there is much about King’s death more than 50 years ago that is painfully symbolic in the grim words of the plaque that was put up outside the room at the Lorraine Motel where King died. It is a quote from the story of Joseph in Genesis: “Behold! Here cometh the dreamer. Let us slay him and we shall see what becomes of his dreams.”

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