The main headlines in newspapers across America in the 1960s were of racial strife — the ongoing civil rights movement and the struggle to end deeply-engrained and state-sanctioned racism across parts of the United States. At the forefront of the struggle was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had emerged from the Montgomery (Ala.) bus boycott in 1955 as the preeminent civil rights leader of his day.
On March 22, 1968 — fifty years ago today — Dr. King was scheduled to march in Memphis. He was to have joined the city’s sanitation workers, who were striking to protest poor working conditions. The workers had gone on strike in February 1968, after a malfunctioning garbage truck crushed two men. Some 1,300 black men from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike.
Interestingly, that strike might have ended on Feb. 22, 1968, less than 10 days after it began. On that day, the Memphis City Council voted to recognize the Department of Public Works’ efforts to unionize and recommended pay raises for employees. But Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb rejected the vote, saying that only he had the authority to recognize the union. That incident sparked a march on city hall. When police used tear gas and mace to disperse the demonstrators, the movement grew, and a large number of white students from Memphis high schools and colleges began to join in on daily marches alongside the striking sanitation workers.
King arrived in the city on March 18, addressing a crowd of 25,000 and encouraging them to support the sanitation strike by participating in a citywide work stoppage. He pledged to return to Memphis the following Friday — March 22 — to lead a march through the city.
On Thursday, March 21, the day dawned gray and rainy. The forecast called for a high of 45, and a low of 34, with lots of rain.
But then temperatures began to plummet. The rain changed to snow. Residents described the snowflakes as being the size of golfballs. Local media reported that it snowed for 21 consecutive hours. By the time it stopped, 18 inches of snow blanketed Memphis, catching everyone off guard and paralyzing the city.
It was a relatively localized snowstorm. Just thirty miles to the northwest, in Marked Tree, Ark., snow accumulation was measured at just an inch.
But in Memphis, a foot and a half of snow had accumulated, and King’s march was canceled.
King’s march was postponed until the following Thursday, March 28. But just as the march was beginning, gang members initiated violence that left one person dead and numerous others injured. King, who had long preached a nonviolent approach to solving the nation’s racial woes, vowed to return for another march so that the Memphis sanitation dispute could be reestablished as one of nonviolence. That march was scheduled for April 8.
King arrived in Memphis on April 3, nearly a week ahead of the scheduled march date — perhaps sensitive to the violence that had occurred before and wanting more time to prepare. That evening, as he addressed a crowd at the Mason Temple in downtown Memphis, King famously said in his last speech: “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 want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. 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.”
The next day — April 4, 1968 — King was shot in the face by an assassin as he stepped onto the balcony of his hotel to speak to supporters who were standing below. He was rushed to the local hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. FBI agents discovered a .30-06 Remington rifle next door to the motel, and fingerprints uncovered in the apartment where the gun was found led them to James Earl Ray, a fugitive who had escaped from a Missouri prison one year earlier. Ray was later captured in Britain and admitted to killing King in order to avoid the death penalty. He was sentenced to a 99-year prison sentence to be served at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Morgan County. He eventually recanted his confession, and maintained his innocence for the rest of his life. In the 1990s, even King’s own family began to publicly support Ray’s efforts for a new trial. It was not granted, however, and Ray died on April 23, 1998 — thirty years and one month after King’s assassination.
Many of King’s ideas were realized. True to his own words, spoken one night before his death, he did not get to the promised land. His people did, though, and despite the racial strife that continues in parts of America fifty years later, the idea of equal rights for all has largely been realized.
One can’t help wondering, though: if that snowstorm that stunned Memphis on March 21-22, 1968 had been just thirty miles east, how might history have been changed?