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50 Years After MLK’s Death, History Helps Us Understand and Act in Our Troubled Times

Chronicling the Drama of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Final Hours

A Q&A with Joseph Rosenblum

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Photo courtesy of the Withers Family Trust

This Q&A appeared originally in the Smithsonian subscription e-newsletter.

In the summer of 1968, when the city of Memphis was still reeling from the horror of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Joseph Rosenbloom was interning as a young reporter at the Commercial Appeal. He vowed to one day write the story of the last hours leading up to Dr. King’s death. He returned to Memphis between 2006 and 2014 to interview two dozen people connected to the events of the fateful Fourth of April. The interviews became the basis of Redemption: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Last 31 Hours. What follows is a Q&A conducted by the Smithsonian with Rosenbloom about his book, his interviews, and what readers should take away from it.


Smithsonian: You set out to write a tight narrative about MLK’s last thirty-one hours. What new details differentiate your book from other accounts that have been published?

Joseph Rosenbloom: What urgent mission brought MLK to Memphis in 1968 even as he was on the verge of launching his Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, DC? What happened in Memphis before King was fatally shot there on April 4? Redemption answers the questions more vividly and completely than any other published account.

Drawing on dozens of interviews with people close to the events of 1968, it casts in bold relief the story of King’s last thirty-one hours and twenty-eight minutes, between the time he returns to Memphis on the morning of April 3, 1968, and his murder on the evening of the next day. It evaluates his reasons for coming to Memphis. It explores the predicament that traps him in Memphis when a march he was leading to support striking garbage workers turns into a riot. It examines his intensive efforts to organize a peaceful follow-up march as he rushed to redeem his reputation as the leader of a nonviolent movement.

Informed by fresh material from recently opened archives, the book explores how King’s costly detour to Memphis was diverting him and his aides from the task of recruiting thousands of poor people for massive protest in the nation’s capital. It shows the extraordinary pressures that King was facing as he struggled to recruit volunteers and funds for waging the Poor People’s Campaign.   

With an unmatched depth of detail, Redemption profiles key figures in the Memphis events. Among them are: the city’s mayor, Henry Loeb; King’s legendary local lawyer, Lucius Burch; and King’s romantic partner Georgia Davis, who was present in Memphis with him.

The book discloses a previously unreported lapse in Memphis police security for King. It parses the chain of lucky breaks that enables James Earl Ray to shoot him in the early evening of April 4. With the benefit of thorough research into untapped documents, including the April 1968 contents of King’s briefcase, it offers new insights into King’s priorities and state of mind at the time of his death.

King’s suitcase
King’s suitcase

S: You interviewed lots of people who were close to King at the time of the event. What was it like interviewing them, and what were some of the most interesting stories you heard?

JR: Hearing their stories was like having a front row seat, albeit many years later, on a tragic, historic American drama. The interviews took place during a span of eight years, starting in 2006 and concluding in 2014. I was fortunate to conduct the interviews when I did. At least eight of my interviewees have died since they sat down with me.  

Many of the stories they told were interesting, not just because they provided depth to my understanding of King in the last phase of his life, but because of the feelings they expressed in recollecting their part in the events of 1968.

Memphis police officer Ed Redditt told of having been part of an African American security detail that guarded King tightly during a visit to the city in 1966. Then he and other African American officers were all but glued to King while he was in Memphis. In 1968, however, Redditt was assigned to a surveillance team monitoring King covertly from a distance, not security for him. Years later, Redditt was still anguished by the thought that, had he been guarding him in 1968, he might have protected his from harm.  

Then there was the insider’s story told by the Reverend Frank McRae about Mayor Henry Loeb. McRae, a friend and confidant of Loeb, had the ear of the mayor as the garbage workers’ strike assumed the dimensions of a bitter racial clash. McRae pleaded with the mayor to find a way to settle the strike. But Loeb adamantly refused to negotiate with the workers until they returned to their jobs. In looking back, McRae still felt distress at not having been able to dislodge the mayor from his hardline stand.

Andrew Young, a top lieutenant at King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, told of urging King not to accept the invitation to go to Memphis. Young feared that even one speech by King in Memphis would draw him into the garbage workers’ dispute and bog him down in Memphis, distracting him from the Poor People’s Campaign. That is exactly what happened, culminating in King’s assassination in Tennessee. But Young said it was not frustration he felt when King was killed there. He had only wished that he, too, had been killed because he could not imagine the civil rights movement moving forward without King’s leadership.

S: If King hadn’t been assassinated, what do you think he would have been able to accomplish in the rest of his life, especially regarding his antipoverty work?

JR: I doubt that he would have gained much legislatively with the Poor People’s Campaign in the spring and summer of 1968. There was little time for King to pressure lawmakers into enacting antipoverty legislation. It was an election year, and Congress was to adjourn by mid-summer. King was vowing to besiege the nation’s capital with massive civil disobedience. The marches and sit-ins he was planning might well have spun out of King’s control into violence, as had happened during the march under his banner in Memphis. That would have further damaged his image as a restrained, nonviolent leader and even sapped public support for the Poor People’s Campaign.

The federal budget was under growing strain from the cost of waging the Vietnam War. President Lyndon Johnson had already scaled back the antipoverty program that he had introduced as part of his “Great Society” program. The prospects were dim that Congress would add more antipoverty money to the budget. By the spring of 1968, Johnson and powerful members of Congress were preparing to thwart the Poor People’s Campaign with tough law enforcement. King’s civil disobedience likely would have landed him in federal prison for years.

By and by, though, I think he would have emerged from prison as a re-energized leader and an important moral force behind a new political movement with an anthem of social and economic justice for the poor and other disadvantaged Americans. It might have emerged as a third-party alternative to the Democrats and Republicans. With his oratorical power and iconic civil rights legacy, King could have elevated the cause of economic justice to a higher priority on the nation’s agenda.

S: What do you want people to walk away from your book thinking about?

JR: I hope that the book imparts to readers the full meaning and resonant emotion of King’s last hours in Memphis. He was then embarking on a new and ambitious crusade to end poverty in America. That subject is a central theme of Redemption. I hope the book spotlights the subject of poverty in a way that inspires readers to look at it through King’s eyes. I hope that readers will come to understand King in a more complete and nuanced light. It shows him as he pivots ideologically and tactically in a direction that was displeasing many of his most ardent supporters. The book shows a man under crushing pressure from many sides. It shows a nonviolent man fearful, even certain, that he would die a violent death, yet a man who was pushing forward, viewing his death as a redemptive sacrifice for a noble cause.


About Joseph Rosenblum 

Joseph RosenblumJoseph Rosenbloom is an award-winning investigative journalist. He has been a staff reporter and editorial writer for The Boston Globe; an investigative reporter for Frontline; and a senior editor and features writer for Inc. magazine. He’s written for magazines and newspapers, including The Boston Globe MagazineInternational Herald-TribuneThe Wall Street JournalThe New York TimesThe American Lawyer and The American Prospect. Rosenbloom has a B.A. in history from Stanford University and a J.D. from Columbia University Law School. He lives in West Newton, MA. He is the author of Redemption: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Last 31 Hours. Follow him on Twitter at @joerosenbloom and visit his website.