Lecture on The Assassination of Martin Luther King
It is 51 years this week since Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Retired Judge Robert Benham spoke to the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara on his personal recollections of the assassination. He recounted the historical facts of the assassination as he understands them today.
Here Judge Benham posed with Humanist Society President Roger Schlueter before the talk
Here are the rest of my photos.
Benham started his talk with April 4, 1968. He was 29 years old as a young lawyer in private practice. He was walking down Linden Avenue in Memphis to the Chisca Hotel to a meeting. An ambulance sped down Main Street no more than 100 feet away, sirens blazing.
Twenty minutes later he learned the ambulance was carrying Martin Luther King from the Lorraine Motel to St Joseph Hospital where he died soon after arrival.
Cities across the country erupted in violence. Martial law was imposed in Memphis for weeks. "Why did this have to happen in my adopted city?" Benham wondered.
He backed up to January 1, 1968 where simultaneous events were occurring 1,800 miles apart. James Earl Ray had escaped prison in Missouri and was working as a volunteer for segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace. Ray was using the alias Galt, one of many he used.
Galt had been "mentored" by Wallace and others. One who indoctrinated Galt was J.B. Stoner who was from Benham's home town of Chattanooga. Stoner called Hitler a "moderate", called blacks "apes" and said being a Jew should be punishable by death.
Galt was also an admirer of Rhodesia's Ian Smith.
Back to Memphis. On January 1 a new form of government had begun and the outgoing government left the city in a financial mess. Three of the new city council members were black. The first elected black officials in Memphis since Reconstruction.
Reconstruction was a big deal. Benham had school mates whose grandparents lived through it. Back then the South was solidly Democratic. The few blacks who could vote were Republican. The 1954 Topeka case (Brown v Board of Education) flipped everything.
February 1, 1968 was a typical rainy day in Memphis. The sanitation workers dreaded it. There were no sealed containers. They had to take the trash from the rear of residences and businesses in tubs. They had to carry the tubs overhead and they leaked. It was disgusting in every way and they were paid only 90 cents/hour for this.
Two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker were taking refuge from the cold sleet and rain in the maw of their truck. The compactor mechanism of the truck malfunctioned and pulled these two workers to a horrific death.
The result was an unprecedented strike by 1,300 sanitation workers for better working conditions, better pay, better hours and the right to organize. New mayor Henry Loeb said the strike was illegal.
The moral leader of the strike was Rev James Lawson who had inspired the lunch counter sit-ins by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). One of the SNCC leaders was now-congressman John Lewis. Lawson was the only African American enrolled at the time at Vanderbilt. He had studied Gandhi's teachings in India.
It was Lawson who inspired the "I AM A MAN" signs that the sanitation workers wore while on strike.
Black city council member Fred Davis negotiated a settlement offer by the strikers on February 22. It was rejected by the city council, even though it was almost identical to the final settlement.
The rejection led to a march down Main Street to Mason Temple. The police were supposed to protect the marchers but instead they edged the marchers to the right. A police car ran over the foot of a marcher and policed maced the marchers. Only 70 of the 1,000 marchers made it to the Temple.
The City got a court order that limited strike activity and stopped negotiations for 26 days.
Back to the West Coast. On March 16 King was promoting the Poor People's Campaign in LA. He wanted to pre-empt some who were calling for violent action. On that day, his friend Lawson asked King to come to Memphis to address the sanitation workers.
That same day Galt left LA and had his mail forwarded to General Delivery in Atlanta. He had never been to Atlanta. But King was a native of Atlanta and lived there.
In Memphis King spoke at the Mason Temple: We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny. It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages. He promised to lead a march in support of the sanitation workers.
On March 21 Galt was heading east. He stayed with friends in New Orleans where he read in the paper that King was to be in Selma the next day. Galt headed to Selma which indicated he was scouting King and his security.
King did not go to Selma as he planned to lead the march in Memphis. But a freak snow storm paralyzed Memphis. Benham remembered that storm well. 14" of snow in spring!
The march was rescheduled for March 28. King returned to Atlanta and Galt also went to Atlanta upon learning of King's plans. Galt rented a boarding house room and bought a city map. He circled King's residence and King's church. There was no doubt now that he was stalking King.
On the morning of March 28 King flew from New York to Memphis. Black students were encouraged to skip school to join the march. Marchers carried I AM A MAN signs on sticks from Clayborn Temple down Beale Street to City Hall.
Some of the teen age marchers tore the signs off the sticks and used the sticks to smash store windows. They looted the stores. The result was injury and death and massive destruction. King was overcome with grief. It was the only protest he had led that was not peaceful. He wanted to do it over, peacefully.
Meanwhile Galt went to Birmingham and bought a rifle with a scope. He then upgraded to an even more powerful weapon: A Remington .30-06. He arrived in Memphis on April 3 under yet another name: Willard.
A lot was happening on April 3. The Memphis City Attorney received a restraining order to prevent King from leading a march. King's first impulse was to lead it anyway. Cooler heads pointed out the restraining order came from a Federal District Court that had been protecting King. King is given a hearing the next morning on April 4. He was to be represented by Lucius Burch, an excellent trial lawyer.
That evening there was a meeting at Mason Temple in awful weather. King was not feeling well and sent his assistant Ralph Abernathy in his place. The crowd demanded King and King arrived in a driving rainstorm to deliver his final speech.
He ended the speech saying he wants to live a long life. But it is more important to do God's will. He assured people they will get to the promised land.
The hearing ran all day on April 4 with superb lawyers on each side. Andy Young and Ralph Abernathy were King's main witnesses. Young went on to be mayor of Atlanta and UN Ambassador.
Burch asked City witness Holloman (a Hoover lieutenant at the FBI) whether he would rather have King lead the march or someone else. Holloman agreed King should be the one. Judge Bailey Brown agreed to allow the march on April 8 under certain conditions.
That same day Galt (now Willard) obtained a room in a shabby rooming house with a window facing the Lorraine Motel where King was staying on the second floor. The newspaper that day showed him exactly where King was staying.
King learned of the court victory and he was standing on the balcony of the motel with his entourage as they prepared to leave for dinner. That was the moment the assassin struck.
There was immediate pandemonium. Rioting, arson and martial law.
The next day, April 5, the Memphis ministers met under the leadership of Rabbi James Wax. They confronted Mayor Loeb and demanded a settlement of the strike. Loeb refused and the strike continued.
On April 8 Coretta King led the march in peaceful silence. Mayor Loeb still would not give in. The City Council finally asserted its power and agreed to almost the original settlement offer. Including a ten cent per hour raise. But the City did not have the money.
Memphis leading citizen Abe Plough stepped forward to pay the wage increase for all 1,300 sanitation workers with a check for $60K. The strike ended. Plough was president of Plough, Inc (later Schering-Plough).
Galt (James Earl Ray) escaped to Canada, then England then Portugal where he tried to get to Rhodesia. He thought he would be welcomed there. This failed and he returned to England where he was apprehended.
He was returned to the US where he pled guilty in Shelby County, TN. He was sent to a horrible prison called Brushy Mountain Penitentiary. He briefly escaped but ended up dying there on April 23, 1998.
Benham was asked about blacks voting. It was very difficult. Whites who tried to register them were killed.
I asked what he thought of various conspiracy theories behind the King assassination. "Not much." He said Ray was a low life thug who held up prostitutes. He acted alone.
Jesse Jackson was on the balcony after King was shot. There had been friction between them. Billy Kyles and Abernathy were really with King.
Benham noted that Memphis is now majority black!
Here you can see what else the Humanist Society is up to!