On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. found himself in Memphis, Tennessee to lend support to a sanitation workers’ strike.
The strike focused on protesting the sub-standard working conditions of the city’s sanitation workforce after two Memphis garbage collectors, Echo Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck. The night of the third, King lay resting and sick at the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis while his team arrived at a mass meeting at Mason Temple. The place was packed to the gills. King’s right-hand man and best friend, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, called King and told him that the crowd had come to see him, and would not be satisfied unless he made an appearance. Tired, both physically and mentally, King decided to go. That night, King would deliver his final speech:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountain top. [Cheers and applause] 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. I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promise land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promise land. [Cheers and applause] So 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!”
The next day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was taken from the world by an assassin’s bullet, and the world wept.
Since that tragic day, the popular stories we tell about King have perhaps painted a rosier picture than the realities of the time. A new HBO documentary called King in the Wilderness seeks to illuminate the difficulties King faced in his later years. We spoke with Trey Ellis, executive producer, and principle interviewer for the documentary.
“When we talk about the “I have a dream” speech, and his public early successes, he is surrounded by fans and is really seen, you know, he won the Noble Peace Prize, and he really felt like he could do no wrong. Well, we pick up, our film, when all that is over,” said Ellis. “We call it King of the Wilderness because he was so diseased in all sides, including of his own inner circle. He was so bold, and sort of ahead of his own team, that they kept second-guessing him, and they would say that, “You can’t stop your Chicago march to go to the March Against Fear in Mississippi,’ ‘You have to, there’s injustice here.’ ‘You can’t stop this poor-people’s campaign to go to Memphis and support these sanitation workers.’ He said, ‘They’re in need, and we have to go there.’ They said, ‘You can’t come out publically against the Vietnam War, because you’ll lose Johnson’s support and the support of your financial backers.’ And he said, ‘I’m a man of peace, and not violence, I can’t be hypocritical.’”
Because King is so commonly idealized, many forget his humanity.
”I wanted to take him off a pedestal, and to make him through the eyes of his friends,” Ellis said. “And then, when he’s assassinated, you mourn his loss in ways that I think we had forgotten. What I really want to happen, is after that, that we will all become, instead of sad, we will be energized. We will say, ‘Well, this was a real man, this wasn’t a saint, and look at what all he did with almost no resources at the end of the movement,’ especially when he turned them against the Vietnam War. So we, with social media, and all the skills and all of the tools in our disposal, have no excuse but to fight.”
There are many lessons that today’s activist movements can learn from King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s.
“You see that it’s easy to fall into cynicism,” Ellis said. “But he stayed hopeful, and he kept his head down, and kept doing the same, hard work of non-violent organizing. Even when the media turned against him, and his friends turned against him, and his enemies were stronger than ever. So, we see that that sense of massive public action, and appealing to our better angels really had this amazing transformative effect that won the civil rights victories that inspired the women’s movement, that inspired the gay and lesbian and now the transgender movement, that inspired Chicano and the Native American movement, and we just saw, very recently, inspiring young people to protest relaxed gun laws.”
The many activist movements so prevalent today, however, are not as interested in having a single ionic leader like King.
“You can’t wait for a leader to come and save you,” Ellis said. “You have to make your own change, and you have to be that change. Hopefully that message comes through, that Dr. King wasn’t a perfect man, that he just worked super hard. And if we all keep moving forward in our own separate ways, and together, we can make some change. And that’s a big, powerful, that’s more powerful than… I want to empower people by watching this film, as opposed to a false sort of hope to wait for someone else to come and solve their problems.”