At 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, a single shot shattered the evening silence of Mulberry Street in the downtown south-end. For a moment, all of Memphis, even the storm-laden southern spring winds, went still…



A Moment in Memphis, a TR fable


                                  “A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.”



The Black Man leaned into the podium, dark eyes intent on the small crowd that had come to hear him speak despite the storm that threatened.  Tonight, there would be a rally and, on Monday, he would accompany these City of Memphis sanitation workers on a second march in support of their strike, begun February 12 in response to racially discriminatory city management.  In the background, as he spoke, his listeners could hear the distant thunder.


He drew his soul-stirring speech to a close with these words:


“Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life - longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land. And so I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”


After delivering this speech to thunderous applause and devout Amens, The Black Man returned with his friends to room 306 of the Lorraine Motel on Mulberry. 


Night fell and the moon came out, white and spectral, but much of the skies were obscured by storm clouds.  What stars there were reflected dimly in the dark waters of the big river.  When the sun came up, the sky was overcast, sunlight dimmed in saddened grays.  All through the day, the storms threatened, waiting, the air pulsing with otherworldly, ethereal energies.


The Black Man was late to Memphis because his flight had been delayed by another bomb scare.  Since coming to national notice during the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, he’d routinely received death threats but had survived a stabbing and other murder attempts, attacks, arrests, and the bombing of his home in 1956.  A Baptist minister, he was loved and he was hated by Negroes and whites alike. The FBI dogged his steps, tapped his phones, wired his friends. Even so, he organized the massive 1963 March on Washington and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his many years of non-violent, astonishingly effective protests against racism, hate and bigotry.  He was a charismatic married man with four children, a family for whom he could never seem to find enough time. He was always weary, always on the move, always working hard towards a glowing, golden goal that, perhaps, could only be seen inside his dreams. 


The planned march and rally never occurred. 


This is what happened instead.


Rumbling thunder growled through the Memphis skyline, trees pitched and tossed as heaven made its apprehension known.


The Black Man was tired now, bone tired, but it was suppertime.  In room 306, running late, he dressed for dinner, talking to Ralph while shaving with Magic Shave Powder.  They joked about the evening’s meal with Billy, insisting they’d better be served real soul food, not some damn filet mignon or something.


Storms and wailing wild valkyries rode in toward Memphis on the wind.  Far off mountains trembled; a dormant South Pacific volcano shuddered suddenly and then burst, spewing fiery magma down steep slopes.


Billy knocked on the door to hurry them along.


Across the river, graveyards shivered and granite gravestones split asunder.  Rats scurried in huddled masses, scratching and scrabbling for purchase, speeding in panicked thousands from the wharfs and quays.  The mighty river rose, roiling and writhing along the rising riverbed.


As Ralph went to his room to put on cologne, Billy and The Black Man stepped out the door of 306.  He leaned over the green iron railing to speak to Jesse, waiting just below with the others.


"Do you know Ben?" Jesse asked, indicating the Chicago musician who was to play in two hours, at the rally.


"Yes, that's my man!" he said, smiling, "I really want you to play ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’ tonight."


Billy started down the steps.  Ralph was at the door of 307.  The others waited below, beside the white Cadillac, whose Negro driver told The Black Man, "It's cold outside, put your topcoat on." There was indeed an unmistakable and unseasonable chill in the April air.


“Okay, I will.” He said, and turned back to the door of 306, leaning down, key in hand. 


At 6:01, a rifle bullet shot through the cold twilight, hot lead faster than thought, its aim as true and sure as God’s eye.


On the stairs, Billy frowned and wondered, had a car backfired? Was it a firecracker?


The .30-06 caliber projectile tore out the jaw and throat of The Black Man, shredding his necktie and severing his spinal cord, as he held the key to the lock.  There was a single frozen moment’s silence, a pause in time as clocks reset and history’s rhythms changed, an instant as brief as the beat of a heart.

The Black Man fell, hitting hard on the concrete of the walkway balcony.  Ralph, Jesse and the others began to run toward the pooling blood.  Billy went back into a motel room and called for an ambulance.  Policemen immediately streamed into the motel parking lot, hard-faced white men carrying rifles and shotguns and wearing helmets. But somehow it was fifteen minutes before a Fire Department ambulance made it to the downtown Negro neighborhood.

At 6:02 the winds started up again, whipping through the tattered south-end streets, whirling through the cracks and clefts of hardscrabble homes and buildings.  The dark clouds that had hovered over the city since The Black Man’s arrival seemed to swell, skyborne sails welling up with wind and barely contained fury.  The mighty river grew gray and turbulent, swirling faster past the evening’s empty piers and docks.  From the sky came thrumming drum rolls of thunder that shook windowpanes and set dogs to howling. 


Cradling the bloody head of this beloved friend, Ralph told him, “It’s all right. Don’t worry. This is Ralph. This is Ralph,  but there was no response. Others grabbed a towel, held it to his neck, tried to staunch that red and terrible flow.  His pulse still beat, but faintly, his lifeblood pouring out, running over Ralph’s trembling hands.  Every Negro present was crying.  White men in blue cordoned off Mulberry, standing apart, smoking cigarettes and talking in the twilight street.


The ambulance finally arrived and attendants placed him on a stretcher, an oxygen mask across his face.


In Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, power grids flickered, went brown and then black as electricity failed across the upper Midwest.  Tornadoes appeared from nowhere and touched down in Amarillo, Tulsa and Wichita, tearing destructive paths through fields and towns before disappearing into the distance.  Huge flocks of birds sped silent through city streets nationwide, flying low and fast in massed multitudes, avoiding obstacles as if by magic.  Quakes were felt all down the west coast, some registering as high as nine on the Richter scale. Loss estimates were high.


By 6:30, The Black Man was in an emergency room of St. Joseph’s Hospital.  Stunned and scurrying staff doctors attempted surgery but the wound was far too serious.  He was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. and his body taken to the Shelby County morgue.  He was 39 years old.


The Heavens opened up and torrential rains, long held in check, battered the country from the great river to the eastern seaboard.  Lightening struck a church in Alabama, setting it on fire and splitting the bell into two neat halves.  Fires broke out in major cities, even as electrical engineers battled to restore power.  Locusts awoke out of season and rose in enormous, writhing insectile masses to seek sustenance. Three hundred whales beached themselves along the New England coast.


"He had just bent over. I reckon if he had been standing up he wouldn’t have been hit in the face," Jesse told doctors and reporters.


At word of his death, television networks interrupted programming with news updates; all featured anchormen discussing his contributions to The Negro Cause. The Man in the White House told reporters that he was "shocked and saddened" by the death, postponed a scheduled War trip to Hawaii, and called for Americans to "reject the blind violence" which had killed the "apostle of nonviolence."


Thunder rolled and rumbled, the skies wept tears and lightening pierced the darkness with shafts of jagged fire. One struck and killed an eagle flying over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where flags flew at half-mast, and hurled its carcass down to the manicured lawn. The deluge appeared to be sporadic, flooding some neighborhoods while bypassing others. Fires raged unchecked in downtown areas, firefighters concentrating in the whiter, more affluent suburbs. Flickering television screens filled living rooms across America with images of The Black Man and his Cause.

In Memphis, a dusk-to-dawn curfew was established at once and no television cameras were permitted entrance.  "After the tragedy which has happened in Memphis tonight,” said the Mayor, “for the protection of all our citizens, we are putting the curfew in effect. All movement is restricted except for health or emergency reasons."

Police were put on alert for a nondescript white man said to have dropped an automatic rifle after the shooting and escaped in a blue, or possibly white, car. There was no arrest, no culprit, no questions, no answers.

Thunder drummed against the skies, echoing through cordoned-off streets and checkpoints. There were sirens, sirens, sirens sounding out the dark. With a Doppler rise and fall of noise, patrol cars called to each other like sleek steel dinosaurs.

Negro hands set fires, threw rocks from clenched fists; white faces blanched to a paler shade and cowered in shadows.  Buford, the Tennessee Governor, ordered four thousand National Guard troops in to occupy Memphis, whose population was nearly fifty percent Negro.  In a hundred American cities, alarms and sirens sounded all through that night…and into the next five.

Now the nights were entirely Black, white moon no longer visible. The rain fell. The mighty river burst forth from its bed, flooding darkened towns and cities along its banks, immersing docks in wild and windswept waters.  Serpents slithered through doorways and entrances normally denied them, riding the manic waters right into each city’s heart. 

Mayors, Sheriffs and Police Chiefs dithered like clutches of snowy hens, issuing contradictory threats, warnings and reports. Troops barricaded the streets, driving armored tanks through slums and shantytowns. Bottles, bricks; sticks and stones battered at the empty temples of Justice.  Voices on the wind were keening, keening, singing an endless, eerie threnody, a beggar’s lament. Choosers wore white faces like masks.

"When I turned around," Jesse said, bitterly, "I saw police coming from everywhere. They said, 'where did it come from?' And I said, 'behind you.' The police were coming from where the shot came. We didn't need to call the police. They were here all over the place." A moment before the gunshot, the Cadillac driver reported, a squad car with four white policemen in it drove down Mulberry Street.  Who fired that shot at 6:01 p.m.?

Black folk gathered in streets and alleyways, muttering to one another, praying, eyes flashing in the light of a thousand candles. White folk checked their barometers and hid indoors, awaiting a change in the weather. Cats screeched and yowled from rooftops, children awoke in bed with nightmares and feral dogs howled into the moonless sky.  An inexplicable 4:00 a.m. rain of live frogs was reported in Charleston, causing considerable consternation but disappearing with the dawn.  Sea levels rose six inches, worldwide.

In a hundred cities, the rumors and murmurs began. Negro whispers in the dark grew louder, protests joining with the siren calls into the recognizable melody, ‘Race Riot’. National Guard planes flew over the state to bring in contingents of riot-trained highway patrolmen. Units of the Arkansas State Patrol were hurriedly deputized and brought into Memphis. Sixty arrests were made that first night, and every pair of manacles held brown hands.

On the evening of April 4th, at 23rd Street NW in Washington, the seated marble statue of Abraham was seen, by astonished Japanese tourists and French nuns, to weep tears of what appeared to be real blood. This continued until April 9th , the day of The Black Man’s funeral, and then ceased. No scientific explanation for the phenomenon was ever discovered.

Once there was a Dream, but it dimmed and disappeared…in a moment in Memphis.

That year saw a lot of a blood, a lot of tears, till folk were all cried out; so tired of fears that they stopped remembering his words. While War dragged on, with Good Men dead, anger began to fuel their fiery rage.  And while no one was watching, America entered a darker Age.  That long ago, a Man had said, ‘I’m not fearing any man’; began to seem a distant dream, and no eyes looked to the Promised Land. With bitter crops and destitute, the Dream fell into disrepute and no Man rose to take a stand. 

In a world gone gray, few mark the day when a single shot in Memphis silenced a peaceful Man.                  

The mystic chords of memory,
stretching from every battlefield,
and patriotic grave, to every living
heart and hearthstone, all over this
broad land, will yet swell the                                            
chorus of the Union, when again
touched, as surely they will be, by
the better angels of our nature.

-- Abraham’s First Inaugural Address,
Washington, D.C., March 4, 1861


In death, the peaceful Man continues to influence millions around the world. From the first reports of his shooting to the coverage of his funeral services on April 9 at the Ebenezer Church on the Morehouse College Campus, television centered on his struggle. After his death, news coverage of his Cause continued when, on April 11, The Man in the White House signed the Civil Rights Bill into law. 

Even those who, during his lifetime, were vocal detractors now esteem him; all and sundry append his name to their own cause.  And each year, on the third Monday in January, schools, federal offices, post offices and banks across America close in tribute.  The only thing those men won’t do, is try to make his Dream come true; bare words are all they’ll offer to the memory of that peaceful Man.




[The End]


A Moment in Memphis is a TR true tale, couched though it is in the language of fable.  The story belongs solely to Tragic Rabbit, is copyright with all rights reserved.