He had been to the mountaintop

At the time Martin Luther King was assassinated, he was in Memphis, giving his support to a garbageman’ strike. A day after the murder, the union held a memorial meeting, which is here described by Gary Wills:

Memphis is not really the birthplace of the blues, any more than Handy was the father of them; but these are the same people who created the form — the triple repeated sighing lines, with a deep breathing space between each, space filled with the accompanists’ “break” or “jazz.” That is the basic pattern for the climactic repetitions, subtle variations, and refrains of the preacher’s art. That kind of sermon is essentially a musical form; and the garbage men are connoisseurs. When a white pastor from Boston got up, he gave them slogans and emotion; but without a response from the audience — he didn’t know the melody.

Nor did all the black preachers succeed, or win equal acceptance. The surprise of the afternoon, at least for me, came when an S.C.L.C. delegation reached the hall, and the Reverend James Bevel got up to preach. He and his associates looked almost out of place there amid the do rags and scarred ebony skulls; they were immaculately dressed, with educated diction, wearing just the proper kind of “natural” and a beard.

Bevel was the fourteenth, and last, speaker of the afternoon. It seemed that earlier emotional talks would have drained these men of all response left them after the shock of the preceding night. But Jim Bevel slowly built them up, from quiet beginnings, to an understanding of what it means to be “on the case.” (This is a phrase he invented a year ago to describe musicians who are perfectly interacting; it is now an S.C.L.C. phrase of wide applicability.) “Dr. King died on the case. Anyone who does not help forward the sanitation workers’ strike is not on the case. You getting me?” (They’re getting him.) “There’s a false rumor around that our leader is dead. Our leader is not dead.” (“No!” They know that King’s spirit lives on — half the speeches have said that already.) “That’s a false rumor!” (“Yes!” “False.” “Sho’ nuff.” “Tell it!”) “Martin Luther King is not — ” (yes, they know, not dead; this is a form in which expectations are usually satisfied, the crowd arrives at each point with the speaker; he outruns them at peril of losing the intimate ties that slacken and grow taut between each person in the room; but the real artist takes chances, creates suspense, breaks the rhythm deliberately; a snag that makes the resumed onward flow more satisfying) — “Martin Luther King is not our leader!” (“No!” The form makes them say it, but with hesitancy. They will trust him some distance; but what does he mean? The “Sho’ nuff” is not declamatory now; not fully interrogatory, either; circumflexed.) “Our leader — (“Yes?”) — is the man — (“What man?” “Who?” Reverend Abernathy? Is he already trying to supplant King? The trust is almost fading) — who led Moses out of Egypt.” (“Thass the man!” Resolution; all doubt dispelled; the bridge has been negotiated, left them stunned with Bevel’s virtuosity.) “Our leader is the man who went with Daniel into the lions’ den.” (“Same man!” “Talk some.”) “Our leader is the man who walked out of the grave on Easter morning.” (“Thass the leader!” . . . ) “Our leader never sleeps nor slumbers. He cannot be put in jail. He has never lost a war yet. Our leader is still on the case” (“That’s it!” “On the case!”) “Our leader is not dead. One of his prophets died. We will not stop here because of that. Our staff is not a funeral staff. We have friends who are undertakers. We do business. We stay on the case, where our leader is.”

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