Apr 4, 2024 - Politics & Policy

King family's visit to Memphis puts focus on political violence

Caught in a somber mood, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gives his last speech, "I've been to the Mountaintop," to some 2,000 people on the eve of his death on April 3, 1968.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gives his last speech, "I've been to the Mountaintop," on the evening of April 3, 1968. He was assassinated the next day. Photo: Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

Family members of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. will make a rare visit to Memphis — where the civil rights leader was assassinated — on Thursday to mark the 56th anniversary of his murder, the King family tells Axios.

Why it matters: King family members say they're going to Memphis to draw attention to what they see as a rising threat of political violence today.

  • Their visit comes as polls show Americans are increasingly worried about political violence — and yet as rising numbers of people, particularly Republicans, say such violence may be necessary to "save our country."
  • The Kings' visit coincides with Donald Trump, the presumed GOP nominee for president, stepping up his rhetoric about post-election mayhem.

The big picture: King's surviving family members don't often go to Memphis to mark the day he was killed, but his son, Martin Luther King III, tells Axios the family feels it's important to be there this election year.

What they're saying: "This is the first year that we actually are going back as a family to Memphis, and we felt that it was extraordinarily important to be there in that spot this year," said King III's wife, Arndrea Waters King.

  • She said the King family sees little difference between the violent rhetoric coming from some Christian nationalists today and the violent rhetoric from the KKK 60 years ago.
  • King III says civility in politics is diminishing, and he worries that more lives will be lost unless the nation recommits itself to non-violence, as his father preached.
  • "We believe we have to go into difficult areas, to use our platform, to use our voice to lift up what we believe is good, just and right. And so we're willing to make a sacrifice" to visit Memphis despite the painful memories it brings, he said.
Martin Luther King III, Arndrea Waters King, and Yolanda Renee King stand at midfield after being introduced as honorary captains for Martin Luther King Day prior to an NFL Wild Card playoff football game on January 15, 2024, in Tampa, Florida.
Martin Luther King III, Arndrea Waters King (right), and Yolanda Renee King are introduced as honorary captains for Martin Luther King Day before an NFL playoff football game in Tampa, Fla., in January. Photo: Perry Knotts/Getty Images

Flashback: Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis in April 1968 to support striking sanitation workers against the pleas of advisers who wanted him to focus on the upcoming "Poor People's March."

  • King had received death threats and was battling depression as he stepped up to address a crowd the night before his assassination.
  • "But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop … 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."
  • He was shot dead the next day, April 4, as he stood on a balcony outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

What we're watching: Martin Luther King III and Arndrea Waters King will announce a series of grants from their Drum Major Institute.

  • The grants are for social justice groups focused on preserving democracy in Black and Latino communities.
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