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American Routes Shortcuts: Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This week, we’re recalling the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr, where we’ll hear memories from those who knew him. Mabel John has been a Los Angeles community preacher for more than twenty years, but she earned fame as an R&B singer with both Motown and Stax Records.  Her family of ten children grew up singing gospel music together and later the blues.  Mabel's brother, Little Willie John, is famous for his song, “Fever.” When Mabel was an R&B singer, she met Martin Luther King.

Mabel John: My brother Willie met him before I did, and because I was traveling with Willie, I got to know him and understand what he was about. He was about non-violence, but he knew things needed to change, and he also was smart enough to know that even though he was about non-violence, some people would be violent. Well, we always stayed, when we were at Stax at the Lorraine Motel. And he stayed, whenever he would come to Memphis, at the Lorraine Motel. I had a certain room there that I liked and every time he was coming to town, he was getting the same room. And we had never been in town at the same time. Well, I was in town to record; I had to stay over another day. Dr. King was coming in the next day. The owners of the Lorraine Motel said to me: said "Oh, Ms. John, do you mind, since you're leaving tomorrow anyway, getting out of the room very early so we can get it ready for him, and we'll give you a room down the hall?" I said, "No, I don't mind," I said, "It'd give me a chance to say hello to him." He said, "I heard you had my room," I said, "Yes, I heard you wanted mine," and we just kind of swapped a few words like that. And I left, and by the time I arrived in Chicago and got off the plane, everybody in the airport was talking about Dr. King has been shot. I said, "That can't be true, I just left him in Memphis." And just that quick that man's life was gone.

Nick Spitzer: Is there a piece of music you associate with Martin Luther King and that-

MJ: The song that I recorded, at that time of his assassination, is “Same Time, Same Place.” “Meet Me at the Same Time, Same Place.”

[music]

Cpt. Clark Doc Hawley: I'm Captain Clark Doc Hawley, pilot on the Mississippi River, and I was in Memphis with the Delta Queen the very day and night that Martin Luther King was killed, and I was at the foot of Beale Street with the Delta Queen. And to see that skyline of Memphis burning, huge flames, smoke. That was one of the most important things I think I ever witnessed, if you want to say witnessed, but I was there. I was right at the foot of Beale Street.

NS: The mood among the crew must have been very emotional.

CCDH: It was really emotional. Probably three quarters of my crew was Black, you see, and I had this boat full of passengers, and I really would like to have gotten out of town, but we couldn't do it.

NS: Because you weren't getting the supplies because the whole town was, essentially, in chaos.

CCHD: Yes, and the house-keeping staff, unbeknownst to me, had gone down on the riverbank, below Beale Street. And they had broken off branches of willows that grow at the edge and woven the most beautiful wreath. It was a wreath as big as, round as an oil drum, which Black firemen painted black for them. And the next day they came to me and asked to have a little ceremony and to throw the wreath in the river. We invited the passengers to come up and they all came.

NS: Black and white?

CCHD: Black and white. And it was one of the most memorable things I've ever done; with them singing a hymn: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” And those people had worked all night weaving that wreath painted black with a big, black bow on it. I hated to throw it in the river it was so pretty.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.