The Last Night of Dr. King
Two different sets of participants came into the Griot Booth yesterday with beautiful, powerful stories about being with Dr. Martin Luther King during the last hours of his
life. Mr. Fred Davis and Rev. James Netters were both in the first class of black City Council members in Memphis. They are both good friends of Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks (whom the library the Griot booth is parked at is named after), and were working along with Dr. King to resolve the Sanitation Workers’ Strike which had brought Dr. King to Memphis when he was assassinated.
Mr. Davis was interviewed by his friend, Timothy L. Russell. He was on the stage at Mason Temple when King gave the “I Have Been to the Mountaintop”
speech. He recalled how Ralph Abernathy wanted to preach, but the crowd
was too impatient for him. Mr. Davis also recalled a little known detail about that fateful evening, that Stokely Carmichael also spoke very briefly before Dr. King, raising his right fist in the air in the symbol of Black Power.
Then, when King spoke, Mr. Davis watched him deliver the 4,411 word speech, in his sonorous voice…without a single note.
Less than 24 hours later, Mr. Davis was in a secret meeting at the Clarridge Motel trying to end the Sanitation Workers’ Strike, when word came in that Dr. King had been shot. “I will never forget the scene in that room,” Mr. Davis recalled, when he felt the Civil Rights movement come apart, and felt himself come apart.
Rev. Netters was interviewed by Felicia Jones, a member of his church who wanted to honor him as a community Griot. Rev. Netters was also with Dr. King in those final days. He marched in the second line of a march supporting the Sanitation Workers (which Dr. King refers to in his speech). When a group called The Invaders broke some windows, the police tear gassed the marchers. Rev. Netters described falling to the ground, and how two high school kids threw their bodies over him to protect him from the ensuing stampede. The kids tried to tell the police that they were threatening a member of the City Council, but they still threatened to kill him. Rev. Netters said being on the ground, tear gassed, and fearing being trampled or having the police kill him was one of the worst moments of his life.
The day Dr. King was killed, he was in the same meeting with Mr. Davis. The black
members had gotten enough votes, and the City Council was going to override the mayor to end the strike and help the sanitation workers. When word came in King had been killed, three white council members said they had to change their votes, because their constituents would feel like they’d capitulated just because King had been killed. Rev. Netters said, “Thirty minutes before he died, what Martin Luther King had come to Memphis to accomplish HAD BEEN accomplished…and he never knew…it broke my heart.”