Did you know that after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the Memphis Fire Department sent his widow, Coretta Scott King, a bill for transporting him to the hospital? At Lenny, resident historian Alexis Coe talks with Wayne Dowdy, manager of the history department in the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library in Memphis, Tennessee, on how racist tension and discrimination created the environment in which King was assassinated and how Coretta Scott King’s “courage, dignity, and poise” in the face of horrific tragedy fueled the civil rights movement.

Alexis Coe: Coretta Scott King returned to the city where her husband had been assassinated three days after claiming his body. This was truly extraordinary. On a national level, she’s demonstrating that the civil-rights movement would not be deterred by the death of its leader. If she could, in the most nascent days of her widowhood, with small children at home mourning the loss of their father, show up to fight, so should everyone else. And on a local level, she’s telling Memphis, and Mayor Loeb, this needs to end. Now. How closely was the country watching her and, by extension, Loeb?

Wayne Dowdy: The courage, dignity, and poise shown by Mrs. King impressed many Americans and certainly influenced the many white Memphians who pressured Loeb to settle the strike. In addition, Mrs. King’s two visits must have influenced the conduct of the majority of Memphians who, unlike those in other urban centers, stayed true to Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence.

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