Religious News Service Washington correspondent William Willoughby spent two days asking black and white Memphis churchmen what has happened in the year since Martin Luther King was murdered. His report:
Folks in Memphis are proud. On March 11 the Commercial Appeal did an eight-column spread on the ninety-nine-year sentence Judge W. Preston Battle meted out to James Earl Ray for assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King. Above the headline on the world’s number-one story of the day appeared a view of Memphis’s growing skyline on one side and a picture of the judge on the other. In between, in three succinct paragraphs printed in bold face, was the refutation Battle made at the sentencing of a national magazine’s cutting barb that the mid-South’s leading metropolis is a “decadent river town.”
Battle is right; the city—twenty-fourth largest in the nation—is not decadent. But it is emotionally enervated—from its black population’s challenging of the Establishment, from the drawn-out events of the Ray trial, and from adverse publicity resulting from King’s murder (“Why did it happen here—why not somewhere else?”).
It’s a year since Ray’s shot into King’s face triggered the biggest wave of terror the nation has known. As he lay in wait at the rear of a seedy flophouse, his 30-caliber rifle trained on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel across the alley, Ray caught the nation’s seventh-fastest-growing city off its feet. Almost. Had it not been for the excellent leadership of such Negro clergymen as James Lawson of Centenary A.M.E. Church and Judge-pastor Ben Hooks of Greater Middle Baptist, Memphis—like Washington—would ...1
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