City of Memphis v. Martin Luther King, Jr

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City of Memphis v. Martin Luther King, Jr


By: City of Memphis

Date: April 1968

Source: City of Memphis v. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Archives: Records of the United States District Court, 1968.

About the Author: City officials in Memphis clashed with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) in 1968. SCLC, headed by King, began in 1957 to employ nonviolent direct action in the struggle against segregation. Members of SCLC typically used marches as a protest technique.


By 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968) had spent over a decade as the chief spokesperson for the African American civil rights movement. In Memphis in the spring of 1968, King and the other ministers who formed the leadership of the premier nonviolent civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), prepared to expand the movement to include economic justice for poor, working-class blacks.

As SCLC promoted a Poor People's Campaign, King decided to go to Memphis to support a strike of predominantly black sanitation workers. On February 3, 1968, a group of marching strikers had been attacked by police officers wielding nightsticks and spraying mace. The strikers and their supporters then began a boycott of all stores in the downtown area, the stores owned by city leaders, and the two Memphis newspapers. King went to Memphis to emphasize that most African Americans were part of the working poor who stayed poor because they were unorganized. Union recognition would help reduce black poverty. On March 28, King joined a march through Memphis for black rights. The march turned violent when thieves among the protesters began breaking store windows and grabbing stock along three city blocks. The police then attacked the marchers with tear gas. By day's end, sixty-two people had been injured and a black teenager lay dead.

SCLC debated holding another march. They feared that if they did not demonstrate that they could stage a peaceful march in Memphis, then a scheduled march through Washington, DC for poor people's rights would collapse. King agreed to return to Memphis. On April 4, 1968, King stood with fellow civil rights leaders on a balcony outside of a motel room. He was shot dead by James Earl Ray, an escapee from the Missouri state penitentiary. Although King had been an apostle of nonviolence, his assassination set off a new wave of rioting across the country.



Complainant vs Martin Luther King, Jr.

No. C-68-80

Hosea Williams, Reverend James Bevel, Reverend James Orange, Ralph D. Abernathy and Bernard Lee, all nonresidents of the State of Tennessee, Defendants

Answer The defendants deny each and every allegation of the complainant except as follows:

The defendant Martin Luther King, Jr. and members of his staff were invited by local ministers to participate in a march held on March 8, 1967. Said march was held under the supervision of local ministers and the responsibility for planning and supervision to maintain order did not rest with those defendants.

The defendant King at the urgent request of local march leaders did leave the scene of disorder. At the same time, local leaders made immediate and successful efforts to turn the march back.

The defendants have organized and conducted in many communities utilizing the principals of non-violence numerous marches, none of which have resulted in civil disturbance. The defendants are not presently and have never been engaged in any conspiracies as alleged in the complaint. Defendants have in no way in their private or public statements sponsored, fermented, encouraged and incited riots, mobs or breaches of the peace as alleged in the complaint.

Defendants further state that they have never refused to furnish information concerning marches or plans as such information became available; that in fact said information has been furnished on a continuing basis to local law enforcement officers; that there is no statute or ordinance requiring the issuance of a parade or march permit by police authorities. However, to the extent that there is any custom or practice of submitting plans for parades or marches to police officials for discussion and review, the defendants have and will continue to do so as soon as practical after said plans have been made.

The defendants utilizing their experience have undertaken the following general steps to insure that the march will be non-violent and under control at all times. Limitations will be placed on the number of marchers in each line; parade marshals will be carefully selected and give training in their duties; liaison will be maintained with local law enforcement officers and the necessary protection and assistance will be requested; all groups in the community have been contacted to insure the parties in the march will participate on a non-violent basis; a route has been tentatively selected, together with tentative starting and ending times for the march and other necessary organizational steps have been and are continuing to be taken to insure a peaceful march. Steps have further been taken to prohibit the use of signs affixed to sticks or any other object which might be utilized in an improper manner.

Defendant, Martin Luther King, Jr., further states that he has on numerous other occasions received threats or been informed of threats received by others concerning his personal safety; that while all due precautions have been taken, there have been no difficulties encountered as a result of such threats.

Defendants respectfully request that the application for an injunction should be denied or in the alternative that the Court permit the march to be held under such reasonable restrictions as may be necessary giving due regard to the defendants and their First Amendment rights.


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did much to end racial segregation and give formal political power to blacks. Yet these improvements did not fully fix deep problems that kept blacks at the bottom of the economic ladder. As King himself noted in a 1967 speech in Chicago, blacks had expected sudden, dramatic improvements and when these did not materialize, they became frustrated. This frustration exploded between 1965 and 1967 as more than a hundred riots tore across the United States.

While King reaffirmed his faith in nonviolence and integration, others within the civil rights movement suggested that peaceful tactics be abandoned. The persistence of white hostility and the betrayal of black expectations encouraged new movements, strategies, and ideologies. The most popular new idea was that of black power, by which black people would assume control of their own communities, lives, and destinies. Politically, black power meant electing blacks and forcing them to address black needs. Economically, black power demanded that the money spent by black people remain in the black community.

As subsequent race riots, notably the Los Angeles riots of 1992, have demonstrated, many blacks continue to feel the same frustration that the 1960s generation experienced. The civil rights legislation had limited significance in the day-to-day lives of most African Americans. Economic differences continue to loom large. In 1970, 33.5 percent of African Americans lived below the poverty line, while only 9.9 percent of whites did so. By 2000, 26.1 percent of blacks qualified as poor compared to 10.5 percent of whites. In the decades since King died trying to help poor blacks, more than a quarter of the African-American population remains mired in poverty.



Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Fairclough, Adam. To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

Garrow, David. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004.

Oates, Stephen. Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: New American Library, 1985.

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City of Memphis v. Martin Luther King, Jr

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