This article originally appeared in our April 1972 issue.
On a Memphis motel balcony four years ago this month, a 30.06 slug tore the life from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His colleague and intimate friend, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, was standing inches behind him when the bullet struck.
"I got down over him and I patted his cheek until I got his attention," Abernathy recalled days ago. "I know talked. His lips quivered, and his eyes said to me, 'Don't you let me down, Ralph.' It was like an inner voice."
Abernathy succeeded King as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), that loose confederation of towering egos and simple folk who want justice which served as the vehicle for King's movement. But many were convinced that SCLC's fuel was King's charisma, and without him, it would falter.
They could make a good case.
The mellifluous, urgent baritone solo of Martin Luther King has been supplanted by a cacophony of militant rhetoric in America. SCLC, the one-time vanguard of the black American revolution, is in the back seat to the headline potential of Huey Newton and Angela Davis.
SCLC has moved from mule train to Whisperjet, from frequent street marches to sedate board rooms. Around SCLC's yellow-brick headquarters on Atlanta's Auburn Avenue, the symbolic denim of revolution yielded to double-breasted suits and mod accoutrements. Many faces familiar in King's day have vanished. So has much of the drama.
“Used to be, if there was trouble somewhere, everybody in the place would pick up and go," said the Rev. Andrew Young, one-time King lieutenant and now the conservatively dressed director of Atlanta's Community Relations Commission. "We'd have maybe two people to answer the phone. Everybody else would go march.”
And march and march and march ... in Southern towns like Selma and Grenada, towns that never had made a Northern headline; in better known cities like Montgomery and Birmingham, which soon took on new symbolism ... places that were never the same after SCLC had mounted a campaign.
Today, SCLC rarely commits all its resources to a single issue. Instead of a hundred or more workers in the field, there are only a dozen. Its 48 other staffers—most of them in Atlanta—have desk jobs to perform and phones to answer.
Has Abernathy failed King's admonition not to "let me down"? Is SCLC a walking cadaver?
"The times have changed," King's jowly successor intoned slowly, his booted feet propped on a thick, monogrammed attache case by his desk. “We were having problems prior to Dr. King's assassination. Had he lived, he would have changed with the times, too.
He would have been saying 'right on' and 'power to the people' just like the rest of us."
(One staffer confided that King had decided just before his death to let his close-cropped hair grow to moderate Afro length.)
"During Dr. King's lifetime," Abernathy added, "we dealt with the obvious, overt forms of segregation. Now we are faced with more subtle forms. Sure, we have the right to eat downtown and stay in a hotel. But do we have the right to hold the job to earn the money to pay the hotel bill? We earned the right to schools, but do we have quality education? There once was a time when we could expose evil through mass demonstrations. But demonstrations alone will not solve our problems. We have to have jobs, income, control of our communities.
"The philosophy of our organization is still the same: militant nonviolence. But the strategy has changed."
Even if the more sophisticated challenges of jobs and political power were amenable to mass confrontation tactics, it is doubtful that such demonstrations would command the headlines that they did before.
The Rev. Hosea Williams, a firebrand SCLC organizer whose mere presence in a small Southern town sets old-line white leaders boiling, summarized it: "Unless you go out and get you a gun and shoot at some white folks—you can't just talk about it, you got to shoot at someone now—you don't make the press. But if you go out and do some hard work like we did in Sandersville, or Columbus, or all over Alabama right now, the press doesn't write about that—things that would have made front-page stories 10 years ago."
The last time an old-style campaign got both headlines and results was in 1969, when SCLC joined with union organizers in a 113-day strike to help poorly paid Charleston, S.C., hospital workers win collective bargaining rights. SCLC—including King's widow, Coretta Scott King—defied state and local police to march and kneel in prayer in the middle of the street. And Abernathy, in best Old Movement fashion, spent 21 days fasting in Charleston jail.