Martin Luther King, Jr., Earl Caldwell and the Daily News

Go right now to your nearest newsstand and buy a copy of today’s Daily News.

Because my local tabloid devotes the cover and first seven pages to a commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr., on this fiftieth anniversary of his assassination. And in a double-page spread, you’ll find the entire text of Dr. King’s last speech, “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop.”

Earl Caldwell, a reporter with the New York Times, was sent to cover Dr. King’s Memphis trip. Caldwell was nervous; he was a northern black man going into the deep south.

In two full pages, Mr. Caldwell — whom I well remember reading in the Times and, later, in the Daily News — gives us his memories of what happened. It is great reportage. (Mr. Caldwell is working on a book about Dr. King.)

The page before Mr. Caldwell’s essay, Larry McShane, a current Daily News reporter, talks to Mr. Caldwell and gives us a third-person aspect of Mr. Caldwell’s experience.

McShane’s piece ends with one incident Caldwell described, the morning after Dr. King’s death. It reaches fifty years into our country’s future — into Virginia, into Alabama, into November 2018. Brought me to tears:

Caldwell, after staying up all night, headed to the Memphis airport that morning.

He arrived to see hundreds of black faces standing behind barricades at the airport, where National Guardsman wit rifles and bayonets were deployed to keep the crowd at bay. Many in the crowd appeared haggard, as if they had driven all night for one final farewell to King.

And then, Caldwell recalled, in an image still crystal clear after a half-century later, one black woman began to speak.

“She said, ‘I’ve been standing behind these lines all my life. I’m not standing behind any longer,'” recounted Caldwell.

“This woman, she burst right through that line.”

One of King’s associates rushed toward the woman, wrapped her in a hug and brought her on board the plane.

 

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