Martin Luther King went to Memphis in March 1968 to lead a peaceful demonstration in support of civil rights and economic justice. Instead, the city became his final battleground.

Sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, had been on strike since February 12, 1968, and negotiations with city officials were at a dead end. When Dr. King announced his intention to march with the strikers as part of his new Poor People’s Campaign, thousands rallied to the cause. But the deepening divide in the civil rights movement between supporters of nonviolence and supporters of direct action was about to be exposed in a city with a long history of troubled race relations.

Marchers began to assemble outside Clayborn Temple as early as 8 a.m. on Thursday, March 28, buoyed by a massive leafleting and word-of-mouth campaign. The temperature was 61 degrees and climbing. Downtown would soon be stifling. Yet, as strikers and their families and supporters gathered, expecting King at 10 a.m., their mood was festive. This was the day they would show Mayor Henry Loeb the power of a united black community allied with unions, students and people of goodwill, white and black. Hundreds of workers carried placards reading “I Am A Man.” No one expected trouble. It would be a grand march.

By 10 a.m., high spirits and enthusiasm gave way to frustration and anxiety as police helicopters buzzed annoyingly overhead. On the outskirts of the gathering, disheveled men, young and old, trickled in from Beale Street and a surrounding area lined with pawnshops, bars and liquor stores. The boycott of downtown businesses had hurt their business: When people didn’t shop, the work of petty hustlers and thieves slowed down. The swelling crowd vastly outnumbered the marshals assembled by James Lawson, a veteran civil rights activist whom King called “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world,” but only some of those gathering that morning supported nonviolence.

A gulf had emerged between the careful planning of the adult leaders and organizers and the youth and street people. Thus far, black sanitation workers had been the core of most marches, and their nonviolent discipline remained rock solid. Not so with many of the new participants in the movement. “There was an element in the crowd that we couldn’t get rid of at that time. Nobody could do anything with them,” said the black City Councilman Fred Davis. Other city council members, James Netters, also black, and Jerred Blanchard, a white Republican, were also there, feeling increasingly uneasy. The “white presence wasn’t exactly overwhelming” in the ranks of the marchers, said one participant, making the crowd especially vulnerable to police attack.

But where were the police? Except for the helicopters and a small group at the front led by Assistant Police Chief Henry Lux, they showed little visible presence. In reality, police had circled the area, and nearly all officers had been mobilized, including some 300 Memphis police and 50 Shelby County sheriff ’s deputies. Most had been working long hours, seven days a week, since the strike began. Their tempers were short. Sitting in cars, as sweat rolled down their shirts, or standing somewhere in the boiling sun, they carried .38-caliber pistols, shotguns and billy clubs, and they were quite ready to use them. Nearly all of them were white men, many of them originating in the plantation districts of Mississippi.

There were not enough city-owned shotguns, portable radios or riot helmets for all the officers on duty, so some carried their own personal weapons. The helmets they did have lacked plastic shields to protect their faces from flying objects. In fact, 350 law enforcement officers could hardly control what looked to some like 6,000, to others like 15,000 to 20,000, people in the street. To supplement their power, the police had an emergency squad, called the TAC Unit, which consisted of three cars, each of which held four men. A commanding officer could order a unit to a location, where they would quickly form a flying wedge and charge down the street. But whether such tactics would break up disorder or merely spread it was an open question.

Martin Luther King’s overcommitted schedule, which always held up his appearances, had created a tactical nightmare. He’d spent several days meeting with vastly diverse groups in New York before boarding a plane for the Bluff City on Thursday morning. Immediately after the Memphis march, he planned to leave for Washington, D.C., to organize logistics for the Poor People’s Campaign march to be held in the nation’s capital on April 22. King’s plane was late, and he feared his absence would jeopardize the march’s success. Exhausted, frustrated and agitated, King finally arrived at the Memphis airport at 10:30 a.m.

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) organizer Jesse Epps brought King into the city like a head of state, in a white Lincoln Continental borrowed from a black funeral home. But when the car arrived at Linden and Hernando streets, pandemonium erupted. Everyone wanted to see King up close, and so many young people swarmed around that Epps could not maneuver the car and King and his aides could not get out.

Surrounded by an unruly sea of people, King appeared apprehensive. He initially agreed to wait to take leadership of the march until Lawson could get it better organized. But the Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff members present said King had been in such chaotic situations before, and they urged Lawson to start the march. Lawson cleared people out of the way with great difficulty, but he got the crowd moving. Within a block, King took the lead, linked arm in arm with Christian Methodist Episcopal Bishop Julian Smith, King’s aides Ralph Abernathy and Bernard Lee, and Lawson. It was 11:05. King’s admirers continued to charge up from the back, and reporter Kay Pittman Black heard King exclaim that someone should “make the crowds stop pushing. We’re going to be trampled.”

Jesse Turner, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the top-ranking police officer at the scene, Henry Lux, independently considered the possibility of aborting the march, but both concluded that might precipitate a riot. As the crowd moved down Hernando to Beale Street, marchers grew more confident, singing “We Shall Overcome” and chanting “Down with Loeb.” As film footage of the event later showed, however, King was in distress. Pressed upon by the crowd, his eyes glazed, his head falling to the side, he looked as if he was asleep on his feet. King’s colleagues practically carried him along.

The march progressed slowly along Beale. Before they got to Main Street, Lawson, King and others at the front of the march heard the resounding crack of storefront windows behind them. Tri-State Defender writer and photographer Whittier Sengstacke Jr. saw black youths waving sticks, with heavy objects bulging from their pockets, while “hardened men in their twenties and thirties” spread out on the sidewalks. People began to yell “Burn it down, baby!” No police officers intervened to stop the window breaking.

Up ahead on Main Street, at Gayoso Street, however, a large number of police formed a line to block the marchers from continuing toward city hall. With windows breaking all around, King found himself leading a group of seemingly riotous marchers into a potentially deadly confrontation with the police. In Chicago and elsewhere, King had been the victim of mob attacks, but never had he seemed to be leading a mob. The thought that King might be killed crossed the minds of a number of people.

Lawson sent runners back to the main body of the march to stop it. His second concern was to remove King. King hesitated, saying, “Jim, they’ll say I ran away.” Lawson recalled, “Martin balked, so I said directly to Ralph Abernathy something about ‘I understand Martin not wanting to, but I think he should go on.’”

Bernard Lee flagged down two black women in a white Pontiac, and Lee took the wheel while King, Abernathy and two other unidentified black men got in the back. At McCall and Front streets, about 50 people who had broken away from the march surrounded the car, and they could go no farther. Lee then asked a motorcycle policeman, a Lieutenant Nichols, to get them to the Peabody Hotel, where AFSCME had a suite of rooms, but Nichols said the rioting made it impossible. “Just get us away from trouble,” Lee said. Joined by three motorcycle cops sent by Police Chief James MacDonald, Nichols escorted King to the Holiday Inn Rivermont. The police department’s leaders had no desire to make a martyr of King, but that didn’t mean they respected him. Nichols later claimed disparagingly that King’s “only concern was to run and to protect himself.”

After King left, Lawson and his marshals tried to turn the marchers around, shouting: “Go back! Go back to the church!” But the police kept moving in on them. At 11:18 MacDonald used a bullhorn to order the march to disperse, while his officers put on gas masks and began moving south from their blockade across Main Street. At 11:22 Fire and Police Director Frank Holloman called the chief of the Tennessee Highway Patrol, and motorcycle cops were ordered to clear people out. Police waded into the crowd, using clubs, mace and tear gas in their effort, as the police report later put it, to “restore order.”

People scattered in every direction, as police seemed to make no distinctions between marchers and looters. Children lost their parents, older people who could not run became trapped and people ducked into doorways and homes for refuge. Fear surged through the crowd.

Police did get victimized. One officer was surrounded and escaped injury only because two black women drove up and took him out of the area. Numerous officers were hurt by broken and flying glass or injured while fighting with people in the crowd. One gruesome news photo showed an officer with blood streaming from a wound to his head; another officer was pushed through a storefront window.

In a scene all too familiar in many American cities at the time, looting spread like wildfire from downtown to nearby business and residential districts, especially to the south. Looters tried to steal guns from York Arms, a sporting-goods store, but the management wisely had put locks on the guns before the march began, and no one could loosen them. Police in helicopters, however, reported that up and down Beale and adjacent streets, opportunistic young men and even children (many of those arrested were between the ages of 8 and 12) ran off with televisions, alcohol, musical instruments and anything else they could get their hands on.

Instead of King’s nonviolent “dress rehearsal” for the Poor People’s Campaign march in Washington, the Memphis march left behind a wasteland, with “Main Street and historic Beale Street littered with bricks, blood and broken glass,” according to a newspaper account. Private ambulances refused to go into the area, and all city buses stopped running after rumors began that a bus driver had been stabbed. Governor Buford Ellington declared a state of emergency; that evening, tanks and trucks rolled in from National Guard units. Meanwhile, the main threat to peace seemed to be roaming police tactical units that attacked anyone who could not get out of their way.

The interior of Clayborn Temple looked like the aftermath of a war. The church held 1,500 people, and every seat and space in the aisles was filled as ministers read the names of lost children and instructed people on how to get treated for tear gas. The Rev. Malcolm Blackburn, Clayborn Temple’s pastor, found a man in the chapel beaten into a semiconscious state, a girl with asthma suffering terribly from tear gas and, on the trunk of a car in the alley, a man that he feared had a broken back.

At 11:43 police ordered protesters in front of the temple to clear out. When rocks and bottles flew their way, higher-ups gave permission to use tear gas, and police entered the temple. People ran, but as the gas spread through the sanctuary, they were forced to the floor to get air—eyes watering, gasping for breath. Some people panicked and jumped out of the windows. The Tri-State Defender published a photo of at least 13 officers with gas masks, helmets, clubs and pump tear-gas guns walking out afterward.

As violence continued downtown, the question of who was responsible for it was already on people’s minds. Thomas Bevier, a newspaper reporter for the Commercial Appeal, saw a patrolman running down the street, tears streaming down his face from the effects of the gas, clutching a sawed-off shotgun. The cop shouted: “We’re trying our damnedest. Write that down. We’re trying our damnedest. The police didn’t start this. Write that down. Treat us fair.” The police said they were creating order out of disorder, but most blacks felt outrage at their methods and blamed Mayor Henry Loeb for their behavior.

At John Gaston Hospital, the city’s segregated public hospital for the poor, doctors treated lacerations, broken bones and teeth, concussions, buckshot wounds and the effects of tear gas and mace. Police or the relatives of victims brought in young black males primarily, and a few policemen also arrived with cuts or bruises.

Despite the chaos, there was only one fatality on March 28: Larry Payne, a black 16-year-old, was shot by a white police officer, Leslie Dean Jones, at the Fowler Homes, a low-income housing project 10 blocks south of Beale. Jones and Officer Charles F. Williams were cruising the project, looking for youths who had looted a nearby Sears, Roebuck store. Jones encountered Payne in a basement doorway and told him to put up both hands. Then Payne, according to Jones, pulled out “the biggest knife I ever saw.”

Jones pressed the barrel of his single-shot 12-gauge shotgun into Payne’s stomach and pulled the trigger. Payne flew backward into a wall and then slid to the ground. The Tri-State Defender later published a picture of Payne lying against the basement stairwell, his eyes and mouth wide open, both hands above his head. After he was pronounced dead at John Gaston Hospital, police produced a rusty butcher knife that they said belonged to Payne, yet they were unable to lift any fingerprints from it. (Nearly a dozen eyewitnesses claimed that Payne did not have a knife and was pleading for his life. The Memphis Police Department later threw away the evidence, and Jones was not even suspended during a police investigation, nor did a grand jury ever indict him.)

Meeting in emergency session with the city council on Thursday afternoon, Fire and Police Director Holloman claimed that black people in Memphis had taken up “general guerilla warfare.” When reporters questioned his inflammatory language, he told them, “Yes, we have a war in the city of Memphis” and ominously suggested that much more violent action could have been taken. “I think you should realize what the police department did. They used restraint.” The next day he reiterated, “We were in a civil war yesterday.”

By contrast, most black Memphians felt they had just witnessed a war on their community. The NAACP’s Jesse Turner characterized some police actions as “brutal and inhuman treatment” of people trying to exercise their constitutional rights. James Lawson concluded that rank-and-file police had declared open season on black people.

Black Memphians suspected that the white media would cover up or rationalize the police violence, and that the marchers, Dr. King and the black community would get all the blame. The black press and the NAACP had documented many such cases before. The Tri-State Defender declared “Cops Wage War on Black Community” and carried a photo of a once energetic and precocious Larry Payne next to a “Poem on Memphis Racism,” a few lines of which summed up the day:

The looters got away very early in the game.
Have you ever seen a thief linger around to be contained?
They claimed our Negro leaders could not control the crowd.
Unfounded lies and accusations, they denounce our leaders loud….
They lay everything on Black Power, but them boys are college bred.
And are too smart to rob a pawnshop, while the coppers beat their heads….
Will they lump us all together forever and a day?
Or will…a new awakening, humane and fairness, be their way…?

Distressed by the outcome of the march, King returned to Memphis on April 3 to organize another demonstration to take place on the 8th. On April 4, Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The march went ahead as scheduled, with Coretta Scott King leading thousands through the Memphis streets in a peaceful tribute to her slain husband. The sanitation strike finally ended on April 16 when the city council recognized the union and approved raises for the workers.


Originally published in the February 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here