Holy Week: Rupture
By Vann R. Newkirk II,2023-03-14
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Mission Control: … now being retracted from the Saturn V vehicle. T minus 15, 14, 13, 12 …
Vann R. Newkirk II: Odds are, you don’t know much about the Apollo 6 mission.
Mission Control: … three, two, one. We have commenced; we have liftoff. (Crowd cheering . )
Newkirk: If you’ve ever seen that one famous video from outside a rocket detaching from the first stage, just beyond the Earth, then you probably have seen Apollo 6. It’s got a bit of a mixed record, as far as space stuff goes. It was just the second test flight of the Saturn V rocket, one of the most critical components of the entire moon-landing program. On its launch date in 1968, the idea was still new, still uncertain, still dangerous.
Mission Control: Now at 10 nautical miles of altitude, heading out beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, uh, we’re on our way.
Newkirk: It had just been six years since President Kennedy announced that we would go to the moon, not because it was easy, but because it was hard. It turned out that building something like a giant bomb that would send men a quarter-million miles away through the vacuum of space was pretty hard.
The launch wasn’t as big an event as previous launches. It was uncrewed, so there was none of the majesty of astronauts walking and smiling. No names to remember. There was no nail-biting drama of wondering if the boys might not make it home. Earlier that week, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he wouldn’t run for reelection. His announcement took away some of the attention from the launch. Still, this was the experiment that would tell us if the thing was possible at all. In a country where so much was falling apart socially and politically, this was the rare moment that might bring people together.
Mission Control: Our first stage will be falling away shortly now. That’s a day’s work done. Again the greatest weight-lifting effort ever … Our inner stage has separated—this crucial timeline event, right on schedule.
Newkirk: In the broad strokes, the Apollo 6 mission worked. The Saturn V rocket did not explode. The command module made it up to space and came back. But there was some damage to the rocket. The mission’s planned route was no longer possible.
Apollo 6 is often described as a failure, but it did end up being important. The ability to safely manage the problems in the launch gave NASA confidence in the Saturn V.
It meant that when Apollo 11 landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon a year later, it did so with the Saturn V rocket.
In the right light, the Apollo 6 launch might be remembered as a validation of the effort to go to space, maybe the greatest scientific endeavor humanity has ever attempted.
It was a spring evening, the week before Passover—10 days before Easter. A time of renewal. A time of change.
But Apollo 6 is not really remembered at all, because there was a bigger story on April 4.
Police scanner: 416. A shooting has occurred … You are to remain in the car until it is verified that the …
Ken Reed (journalist): Yes, this is Ken Reed, of Westinghouse Broadcasting in Washington. And we received word about, uh, the shooting of, uh, Dr. Martin Luther King. And, uh …
Public relations officer: We have no other information about his condition or where he is.
Reed : Uh, you don’t know, uh, when, when, uh, when or how or his condition, uh—you’re just about as ignorant as the rest of us are in all of this, huh?
Public relations officer: I’m sorry. I’ll have to hang up.
Reed: All right.
Police scanner: 24-16. We’ve finally put up on this … It has been confirmed that the Reverend King has been shot. 416. 416. Form a ring around the hotel, around the hotel. Ambulances are responding.
Newkirk: Just after 7 p.m. eastern time, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. A bullet from a .30-06 Remington Gamemaster rifle traveled through his face and spine. His closest friends tried to care for him and reassure him as help came, as police fanned out into the city, looking for the gunman.
Reporter: Dr. Jackson said he had just asked Dr. King if he was ready for dinner when a bullet struck Dr. King in the face. The impact lifting him off his feet, he slumped to the floor without a word.
Newkirk: They rushed King to St. Joseph’s Hospital. But there wasn’t much to be done. Just an hour after the shooting, he died. He was 39 years old.
Newkirk II: From The Atlantic , I’m Vann Newkirk. This is Holy Week .
Part 1: “Rupture.”
Newkirk: The news of his assassination moved lightning fast to radio and TV stations across the country. For the next minutes, hours, and days, there was no other story. This was all that mattered.
Newscaster: NBC interrupts its regular program scheduled to bring you the following special report.
Douglas Edwards: This is Douglas Edwards, CBS News, in New York with a special report on Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King.
Reporter: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee, this evening …
Reporter: Martin Luther King Jr. was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee …
Newkirk: Everywhere in America, daily life stopped. Dinners turned cold. Families watched the news with dread. People spilled out from homes, from stores, from restaurants, into the streets. Politicians scrambled to say something, to comfort people who were facing despair. They understood that this would send America into crisis.
Edmund Muskie: The criminal act that took his life brings shame to our country. An apostle of nonviolence has been the victim of violence.
Lyndon B. Johnson: I pray that his family can find comfort in the memory of all he tried to do for the land he loved so well.
Newkirk: For Black folks who were around in 1968, the moment is seared into memory. It’s the dark thought that comes with all the MLK boulevards, with the calendars and posters and records or speeches, or any time they hear Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” song.
It’s been over 50 years since then, but for many people, it feels like yesterday. Barbara Fleming and Taquiena Boston were both kids in northeast D.C. when it happened. They remember it well.
Barbara Fleming: That was major, major news. It was. They stopped everything on TV. Didn’t have but four channels, but it came on all the channels.
Taquiena Boston: How did it happen? Who did it? What do they know? You know, we were glued to the television.
Newkirk: Topper Carew was a young architect in D.C., trying his best to make Black neighborhoods beautiful. He remembers.
Topper Carew: It was just excruciating, you know, because not only are you feeling it physically, you’re feeling it psychologically because it has just thwarted your spiritual investment, your life investment.
Newkirk: Roland Smith was in a jail cell in Maryland. He remembers.
Roland Smith: I heard crying and, um, panic and everything. And this guy shook me. He says, “Roland, Roland—they killed Martin Luther King.”
Newkirk: Robert Birt and John Burl Smith were hundreds of miles apart. But on that night, it was like they were in the same room.
Robert Birt: I remember Walter Cronkite coming on television, interrupting the program to announce that Dr. King had just been shot and killed.
John Burl Smith: Walter Cronkite is the first face I see. And he’s telling us that Dr. King had just been shot.
Birt: I remember my mother breaking down and crying on the sofa. I can remember, you know, waves of sorrow, anger welling up in my chest at that time.
Burl Smith: Numbness is about the best description I could get it because there weren’t any words.
Newkirk: Almost universally, when I talk to Black people who remember the assassination of Martin Luther King, they’re still wrestling with grief. And there’s a pattern in how that grief manifested. First came the shock, the numbness. Then came despair: What are we going to do? But then … came fire.
Roland Smith: At that moment, a rage kind of jerked its way through my body that I had never felt before.
Topper Carew: You could feel the energy, man. The energy was just terrible, man.
Newkirk: In many ways, the story of the civil-rights movement is a story about disasters and violence. Assassinations, bombings, riots, lynchings, and brutality all take center stage. But I’ve found that King’s death is overlooked. It doesn’t get the same space that it has in so many people’s memories. In real time, that event changed hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of lives. Just after the killing, journalists in Memphis asked King’s associates to make meaning of what just happened. And to Jesse Jackson, King’s murder was nothing short of cataclysm.
Reporter: Do you think that this will have any dramatic effect on the relations between the white and Black in this community?
Jesse Jackson: Well, obviously it will. There were those who never believed in nonviolence because they never understood the depth of that method of solving problems in the world. Dr. King was by far the most articulate spokesman on earth in that regards. To some extent, Dr. King has been a buffer the last two years between the Black community and the white community. The white people do not know it, but the white people’s best friend is dead.
Newkirk: To me, King’s assassination has always stood at the crossroads of chance and destiny. There are few events in history that seem both so predetermined and so … random. In order to even be on the balcony where he was shot, King had to make a detour in his last campaign through Memphis. He had to choose to stay in the tiny, Black-owned Lorraine Motel, in a room with a balcony. Room 306. That room number had to be reported on the news for the assassin to hear.
From Bessie Brewer’s flophouse across the street, the assassin had to watch and wait. If King did come out, for long enough, the assassin had to run to another room to pull the trigger on his rifle. He had one shot. If the killer had tripped or been out of breath, if King had taken a longer nap, if the breeze had blown differently … The mind wanders.
But it all feels so inevitable too. For weeks, King had been delivering a sermon eulogizing himself. Just the night before his death, during his “Mountaintop” speech, he foreshadowed his own mortality. His eyes had “seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Over the years, he had been jailed, stabbed, beaten, surveilled. Rumor has it the autopsy showed that his heart resembled that of a much older man. That years of unimaginable toil and stress were already working to kill him, even if a bullet hadn’t. It’s simply hard to imagine any past, any America, where Martin Luther King lives.
The inevitability of it all makes it hard to look straight at what actually happened when King was killed, and why it all matters.
Robert F. Kennedy: In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.
John True (journalist): United Press International, Memphis. Police and fire department are scrambling in answer to …
Art McAloon (journalist): Widespread violence and looting broke out in two areas of New York City tonight in the wake of the slaying of Martin Luther King in Memphis.
Judd Duval (journalist): Six thousand Guardsmen had been alerted during the afternoon as the vandalism and looting reached alarming proportions.
Jim McQuarie (journalist): This morning, the first violent acts were reported as small gangs of youths roamed the still riot-scarred sections of Detroit, throwing bricks, bottles and rocks through windows.
Tony Seargent (journalist): At least 4,000 National Guard and federal troops are in this uneasy town tonight and more stand ready.
Topper Carew: I immediately hit the street, man.
Taquiena Boston: And I didn’t know what was gonna happen.
Newkirk: After King was assassinated, Black neighborhoods erupted for days. Memphis, D.C., Chicago, Baltimore—in all, over 100 places went up. They were called riots or rebellions, sometimes now uprisings. Whatever you call them, and for whatever political reasons, the week was one of the most consequential in American history.
Reporter: Hundreds of Negroes were lining the streets, apparently in reaction to the news of Dr. King.
Vanessa Dixon: People that lived in the neighborhood were coming outside, throwing a rock, throwing a bottle.
Boston: It was scary.
Dixon: Mothers and fathers started coming out … older men, older women.
Boston: I couldn’t get in touch with my parents. I couldn’t get in touch with my aunts.
Reporter: I noticed some windows breaking and I looked and the Negroes had started looting stores in the area, mainly pawn shops and clothing stores.
Dixon: We was all just like, This is a release.
Boston: It felt like the world was in chaos.
Reporter: They then spotted me, and a very big, burly Negro said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Well, I’m not doing anything. I’m just leaving.” And they said, “Well, you better run.”
Dixon: A white man killed a prominent person in our life.
Newkirk: That prominent person had taken on an almost prophetic role. It’s easy to see why his death became a sort of religious event. Dr. King was a Baptist preacher. His philosophy of nonviolence taught that his own suffering could be redemptive. More and more people viewed him as a sort of messiah. He even died during the Easter season. Across the country, the temptation to make King a martyr for white America’s sins was irresistible. But in America’s ghettos, that sin had not been washed away.
Barbara Fleming: As a child, you knew, you took the loss, but it didn’t hit you in the pit of your heart, as it does today when I sit back and think about all that he went through for us.
Lyndon B. Johnson: I hope that all Americans tonight will search their hearts as they ponder this most tragic incident.
Topper Carew: By nightfall there was a soldier on every corner.
Reporter: At least 100 fires have been ignited. Several are burning out of control at this hour.
Carew: … in your neighborhood. Yeah. In your neighborhood where you’re trying to make beauty, you’re trying to make art.
People on the streets: Hey, how you doing? This is James Louis, alright!
Carew: This is like aliens have just landed in the neighborhood, you know.
Memphis city statement: It’s believed by the Memphis Police Department that an emergency situation does exist, and at this time we are asking that all people of Memphis and Shelby County observe, and as we put into effect, a curfew. We request that all persons, unless it's absolutely an emergency to be on the street, to go to their homes and stay there until tomorrow, when things hopefully will be in a better situation.
Newkirk: That week, flags flew at half mast. Crowds recited and played back King’s speeches. They chanted his name. Choirs came together to sing songs honoring him, trying to keep people together.
Millions of Americans mourned. But they didn’t just mourn the man. They mourned a future that suddenly seemed impossible.
Roland Smith: I was a hospital employee, so I wound up having to report to work. It was, you know, kind of chaotic in the hospital.
I remember going to the top floor of the Washington hospital then, and looking out in one direction, seeing the smoke billowing from the buildings that had been set on fire. I see the military vehicles because D.C. was under martial law, and in the other direction I could see the Capitol dome with the flag flying. And I just kind of remember saying to myself, This is supposed to be the capital of the free world. You know, just thinking, What did our country come to? You know, I was just kind of feeling that sense of loss and anxiety.
Newkirk: The story we are often given transforms King’s death from a tragedy into a sort of redemption. The final chapter of a victorious movement for justice. But that story is wrong.
Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated
King is shot on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. He is pronounced dead within an hour.
Robert F. Kennedy announces King’s death
On the evening of April 4, 1968, Kennedy gives a speech announcing King’s assassination from his campaign trail in Indianapolis.
Americans learn of King’s death
That same evening, radio bulletins announcing the death of Martin Luther King Jr. reach listeners across the country.