MEMPHIS — After their four-hour meeting concluded on the afternoon of April 4, 1968, Jesse Epps extended a dinner invitation to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had arrived in Memphis with other civil rights leaders to rally on behalf of the city’s striking Black sanitation workers.
King politely declined the invitation. He had already agreed to dine at the home of Samuel “Billy” Kyles, a local Memphis preacher, who arrived at the Lorraine Hotel shortly before six that evening to pick him up.
“I got into my car and we drove away, and shortly thereafter, we learned that he had been shot and killed right on the balcony of the hotel,” says Epps, who in 1968, was a labor leader with the American Federation of State, County, Municipal County Employees (AFSCME) and had been sent to Memphis to help settle the 64-day strike. “They killed the dreamer, but they could not kill the dream.”
Forty years later, Epps is back in town this week to commemorate King’s death. He joins thousands of others, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who are hosting numerous festivities across the city that train a spotlight on King’s life and legacy.
Even though time has passed, a cloud of sadness still hovers over this city as Americans reflect on a life that was cut short much too soon.
At 71, Epps, who is currently the founder and president of the National Union of American Families, isn’t as pessimistic as some others. Call him idealistic if you want, but he’s been focused over the last decade on training a new generation of student activists who will create a movement that utilizes some of the same tactics and strategies that the civil rights leaders employed in the 1960s.
“The issues today are clear,” says Epps, who convinced King to travel to Memphis in 1968, much to the dismay of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). “We have to find a way to empower and provide equal economic, educational and social opportunities to every American family.”
After arriving in Memphis earlier this week, Epps has been busy barnstorming area colleges, encouraging students to commit themselves to fulfilling King’s dream of creating a just society. In fact, he’s formulated an idea to place thousands of college students on the ground this summer to work as community organizers in legislative districts across the country.
“You young people can do what we did in the 1960s and change the world,” says Epps, speaking to a group of students at Memphis State University. “We changed America and made her better. You can do the same thing with the tools that you have at your disposal and ask America to live up to what is already written in the Declaration of Independence.”
Many experts, however, say that getting current college students excited about the kind of activism that was commonplace four decades ago, has proven more difficult because students feel less attached to the struggles that existed during their parents’ generation.
But Epps says that whenever he speaks to college students across the country, they are genuinely interested in learning more about the struggles that this country faced during segregation.
“I know that I really want to hear the stories from the veterans who were there,” said Walter F. Washington, 27, a graduate student at Tennessee State University who made the trek to Memphis from Nashville to participate in the many activities planned here. “The rights that we now enjoy are a direct result of the sacrifice Dr. King made for us by giving his life.”
Perhaps it’s fitting then that this week thousands of people are reflecting on the dreamer and his dream, with some recalling where they were when they first learned that King had been struck down by an assassin’s bullet.
Wally Roberts was working the night shift at the Providence, R.I., Evening Bulletin and was at his desk in the City Room when someone called out that King had been shot.
“Several of us reporters and editors crowded into the little room, where half a dozen AP and UPI teletype machines made a madding racket, to read the news story with a Memphis dateline being cranked out by one of the AP machines,” says Roberts. “I can’t recall much else except the assistant city editor, an Irishman from South Boston who was known for his hard drinking and nasty temper, snarled, ‘Well, somebody finally got that ‘nigger.’”
Roberts said that it was clear that the man was “trying to get a rise out of me as much as he was expressing his feelings. But I was too sickened from the shooting and from his reaction and just walked back to my desk in despair. It was no surprise to me when a little while later the same teletype machines started reporting about the riots breaking out in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. It was an immensely sad time.”
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