Andrew Young on MLK assassination: ‘You’re going to heaven and leaving us in hell’
Every moment of April 4, 1968, stays fresh in the mind of the former top lieutenant for King
He was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives. He became only the second African-American mayor in Atlanta’s history. Perhaps most impressive, Andrew Young operated as one of the top lieutenants for Martin Luther King Jr.
When the drum major for justice was assassinated at 7:01 p.m. Eastern time on April 4, 1968, on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, Young rushed from the parking lot below to his side.
“People say, ‘Andy, why don’t you take a rest?’ ” said Young, 86, referring to his nonstop travel from his Atlanta home during the past 50 years to promote his various causes for the disadvantaged between delivering speeches on King’s message of nonviolence. “Well, I mean, I stay active because, right now, I can still see Martin’s blood on that sidewalk, and I can still remember the way the bullet tore into his spinal cord.”
Every moment of that day stays fresh on Young’s mind, and he gave his first-person account of what he saw and felt before, during and after King’s death to The Undefeated.
I was in court all day long, and Martin had closed on such a poignant note the night before [at Mason Temple in downtown Memphis], when he came out to speak with a fever in the pouring-down rain. But there were 11,000 or 12,000 people there, and he dragged himself up, and that’s where he made that famous speech, ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I’ve seen the promised land.’ He had been feeling really bad that day, and that next morning of April 4, I expected him to sleep late, and he probably did. But I had to be in court at 9 a.m. because we were challenging the injunction that wanted us to stop from marching [in Memphis for striking sanitation workers].
So after being in court that whole time, and really on the witness stand for about an hour, I returned to the Lorraine Motel just about 4 o’clock. Dr. King, his brother [Alfred Daniel Williams King, known as ‘AD’], Ralph Abernathy, well, they were all in his brother’s room downstairs, which was the bigger room. They had been eating catfish, because Memphis was famous for its catfish dinners and somebody had brought in a whole tray. So they were all eating and drinking that sweet tea, and they were laughing and having a great time, sort of like his old gang, the guys he grew up with.
When I came in, Martin started joking with me, saying, ‘Where have you been all day long? What have you been doing?’ I told him, ‘I’ve been in a courtroom this entire time, trying to keep you out of jail.’ And he laughed, and then he said, ‘You don’t have to keep ME out of jail.’ Then I told him I wanted him to be able to continue this march in Memphis. Then he said, ‘Why didn’t you call me?’ I usually didn’t talk back to Martin, but I did this time by saying something I normally wouldn’t have. That’s when he said, ‘Oh, so you’re a smartass, huh?’ I said, ‘No, I’ve been doing the best I can, and you all have been sitting around here eating catfish and I haven’t had anything to eat.’
That’s when somebody picked up a pillow and threw it at me, and I threw it back. The next thing you know, you’ve got Martin and Ralph and everybody grabbing pillows. It was one of these big rooms with two double beds and sort of suite, and then everybody started to pick on me. I made a feeble effort to fight back, but finally, Dr. Billy Kyles knocked on the door and said, ‘You all need to be getting ready. You’re supposed to be at my house for dinner at 6 p.m.’ The pillow fight stopped, and Martin said, ‘Well, I better get ready. I need to go upstairs and put my shirt and tie on.’ He left.
By the time Martin got his shirt and tie on, Ralph wasn’t dressed yet. But Martin came out on the balcony, and I was down in the parking lot with [civil rights activist] James Orange, who was about 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, and I was even smaller than I am now. Despite our size difference, James and I liked to shadowbox. So we were shadowboxing in the parking lot, just clowning around, and at first I thought it was a firecracker.
That’s when I looked up, and I didn’t see him.
Martin wasn’t there.
So I ran up the stairs, and he was lying on the ground in a pool of blood. The rifle shot came from somewhere across the street, and the police were over there but they came running toward us. That’s when we all began pointing and shouting, ‘No, go back over there! The shot came from over there!’ But the police kept leaving the area from where the shot came from to run to where we were.
When I looked down again at Dr. King, my first reaction was that it was such a clean wound that it literally severed his spinal cord. You could see it. It wasn’t messy, just a very clean shot, and I realized he probably didn’t get a chance to hear it, and he probably didn’t feel anything. Even though he still had a little pulse, there was no way he could have survived that shot. I thought while looking at him, ‘You’re going to heaven and leaving us in hell. How are we going to get along without you? We were barely making it with you.’
We called [Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s wife] and told her what happened, and the ambulance came to take him to the hospital. Even though I went to the hospital, I knew there was no hope.
The thing that disturbed us the most was that people started rioting, and we kept trying to talk to the press about getting folks to realize that this isn’t what Dr. King would have wanted. But the reporters wanted to talk to the rioters more than they wanted to hear from us, and that was kind of tragic.
We left the hospital, and we got back to the motel about 10 o’clock that night, and we basically said, ‘Look. We have to keep Martin’s movement going.’ I don’t know how, but we already had planned to go to Washington with 24 different groups of poor people [for the Poor People’s March on Washington that spring]. For the first time, the movement wasn’t mostly black people, but we had invited several Appalachian groups, white groups from the big cities and rural areas, senior citizens, three or four Hispanic groups from the West Coast and Native American groups. It was following Martin’s desire to raise the question of poverty. From the very beginning, the civil rights movement was about leading America away from the triple evils of race, war and poverty.
Here we are, 50 years later, and we haven’t solved those three problems, but Martin gave us the dream. Also, when I look back 50 years, I know he died instantly, and it became clear to me on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel that only his body had been killed, but his spirit lived.
In so many ways, it still lives today.