King’s 1968 visit came as leader rallied support 1/14/2014

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 14, 2014

King’s 1968 visit came as leader rallied support

By John Howell Sr.
(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series describing the brief but significant visit to Batesville by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shortly before his death in 1968. A marker commemorating that visit will be unveiled in ceremonies next Monday, on the national holiday in his honor.) 

By the time of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to Batesville on March 19, 1968 he was in a vortex of national and international events.

The War on Poverty, announced to great fanfare in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson, had largely stalled. The nation had become distracted and divided by the Vietnam War.

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Dr. King in 1967 had conceived the idea of a Poor Peoples’ Campaign for the next year. The goal of uniting all races in support of an “economic bill of rights” included a $30 billion anti-poverty package. It would guarantee full employment, a guaranteed annual income and more low-income housing.

Organizing the campaign had proved difficult. On the one hand, he faced a growing Black Power movement that had first challenged the effectiveness of King’s message of non-violence when Stokely Carmichael used the phrase in Greenwood in 1966, during the March Against Fear.
Other civil rights leaders, Bayard Rustin among them, opposed civil disobedience, writes Taylor Branch in At Canaan’s Edge, America in the King Years, 1965-68, from which much of the information in this story is taken.

Meanwhile in Memphis, a halting attempt to organize municipal garbage workers for union membership had galvanized the nation’s attention when two garbage workers were tragically crushed to death inside a truck’s compactor as they attempted to shield themselves from a rainstorm. Marches that followed attracted supporters to Memphis from all over the country, including Dr. King.

Aides worried that King had stretched himself too thin as he tried to balance organization of the Poor People’s March on Washington with supporting striking Memphis garbage workers. He would not be dissuaded. On Monday, March 18, 1968, — after nine speeches in four days in California — he flew back into Memphis for a rally supporting the striking garbage workers.
Tuesday morning King and his entourage were back on the road again, this time for a swing through Mississippi to rally support for the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. His first stop that morning was at the Mt. Zion M. B. Church in Batesville where the historic marker commemorating that visit will be unveiled next Monday, Jan. 20, at 8:30 a.m.

(Among the audience packed into Mt. Zion that morning were seniors from nearby Patton Lane High School. Their story will appear in Friday’s edition.)