Martin Luther King Jr.’s Last 31 Hours

Foreword Reviews - - Foresight / Biography -

Joseph Rosen­bloom, Bea­con Press (MARCH), Hard­cover $25.95 (289pp), 978-0-8070-8338-3

On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. ar­rived in Mem­phis to sup­port strik­ing san­i­ta­tion work­ers and de­liv­ered a pow­er­ful ad­dress that proved to be his last. In the ex­cel­lent Re­demp­tion: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Last 31 Hours, jour­nal­ist Joseph Rosen­bloom re-cre­ates the events of that visit and ex­plores the many chal­lenges King faced at the time. His nar­ra­tive prose proves to be as grip­ping as a good novel.

In what would be the fi­nal phase of his life, a na­tional an­tipoverty cam­paign had be­come King’s top pro­ject. His Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign was a mas­sive and ex­pen­sive un­der­tak­ing that weighed heav­ily on King and his team. At the same time, his vo­cal op­po­si­tion to the Viet­nam War was turn­ing away some for­mer al­lies, and a younger gen­er­a­tion of civil rights ac­tivists treated his mes­sage of non­vi­o­lence as out of touch.

Some of King’s staff were un­happy with his de­tour to ad­dress the Mem­phis strike; King nearly skipped his speech that night al­to­gether be­fore au­di­ence de­mand made him re­con­sider. Such fac­tors add to the drama of the book, and Rosen­bloom does an expert job of thread­ing all that back­ground and con­flict into a chrono­log­i­cal story. He also shows King in qui­eter mo­ments, over din­ner with friends or jok­ing with col­leagues.

Though King is ob­vi­ously the book’s fo­cus, Re­demp­tion also pro­vides plenty of con­text around the visit. The san­i­ta­tion strike is thor­oughly ex­plored, from the work­ers’ griev­ances to Mayor Henry Loeb’s at­ti­tude to­ward the sit­u­a­tion to the March demon­stra­tions that turned vi­o­lent. Rosen­bloom also re­counts the back­story of King’s mur­derer, James Earl Ray, and his own ac­tions dur­ing those cru­cial hours, as he trav­eled to Mem­phis, pur­chased his weapon, and used aliases in at­tempts to cover his tracks.

Thor­ough re­search and myr­iad story lines work to­gether per­fectly through­out. Re­demp­tion be­comes a valu­able ac­count not only of what hap­pened in King’s fi­nal days but of all the his­tor­i­cal mo­men­tum that was lost on April 4, 1968.

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