I remember sitting with Joanna Godwin-Seidl some time ago in the Café Ministerium when she referred to her new play “The Mountaintop”.
I thought it to be a great coincidence because I was just in the middle of reading Greg Iles’ “The Bone Tree”. In this second volume of his “Natchez Burning” trilogy the story continues with John Kaiser, Special Agent for the FBI, following up on two threads of crimes in Natchez he had been chasing for several years. Kaiser firmly believed that the assassination of John F Kennedy, Robert F Kennedy, and Martin Luther King (JFK, RFK, MLK) were planned and executed by the Double Eagle group of the Louisiana Ku Klux Klan. Natchez is the county seat and only city of Adams County, Mississippi.
A Brief History of the Ku Klux Klan
The Ku Klux Klan, commonly called the KKK or the Klan, is an American white supremacist hate group, whose primary target is African Americans. The Klan has existed in three distinct eras at different points in time during the history of the United States. Each has advocated extremist reactionary positions such as white nationalism, anti-immigration and—especially in later iterations—Nordicism and anti-Catholicism. The first Klan, known as the “Invisible Empire of the South”, used terrorism – both physical assault and murder – against politically active blacks and their allies in the South in the late 1860s, until it was suppressed around 1872.
The second Klan started small in Georgia in 1915. It grew after 1920 and flourished nationwide in the early and mid-1920s, including urban areas of the Midwest and West. Rooted in local Protestant communities, it sought to maintain white supremacy, often took a pro-Prohibition stance, and it opposed Catholics and Jews, while also stressing its opposition to the alleged political power of the Pope and the Catholic Church. It rapidly declined in the later half of the 1920s.
The third and current manifestation of the KKK emerged after 1950, in the form of localized and isolated groups that use the KKK name. They have focused on opposition to the civil rights movement, often using violence and murder to suppress activists. As of 2016, the Anti-Defamation League puts total KKK membership nationwide at around 3,000, while the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) puts it at a total of 6,000 members. The second and third incarnations of the Ku Klux Klan made frequent references to America's "Anglo-Saxon" blood, hearkening back to 19th-century nativism. (See also the expression WASP: “White Anglo Saxon Protestant”) Interestingly, there is a fraternal connection between the KKK and the Orange Order, so prominent in Northern Ireland and Western Scotland. On the eve of the Scottish Independence Referendum (Thursday, 18 September 2014) Klansmen and Orange Order men posed under a banner stating “The Orange Order and The Ku Klux Klan Preserving Their Heritage and Sharing Their Culture” in Edinburgh after their “No – Indy” rally on 13 September 2014.
Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, Room 306 (I)
Martin Luther King Jr, an American clergyman and civil rights leader, was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on 4 April 1968, at 6:01 pm CST. He was rushed to St Joseph's Hospital, where he died at 7:05 pm. He was a prominent leader of the Civil Rights Movement and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was known for his use of nonviolence and civil disobedience.
As early as the mid-1950s, King had received death threats due to his prominence in the Civil Rights Movement. He had confronted the risk of death, including a nearly fatal stabbing in 1958, and made its recognition part of his philosophy. He taught that murder could not stop the struggle for equal rights. After the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, King told his wife, Coretta Scott King, “This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society.”
James Earl Ray, a fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary, was arrested on 8 June 1968, in London, England at Heathrow Airport, extradited to the United States, and charged with the crime. On 10 March 1969, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 99 years in the Tennessee State Penitentiary. He later made many attempts to withdraw his guilty plea and be tried by a jury, but was unsuccessful; he died in prison in 1998.
Raleigh, North Carolina
What is nearly forgotten: Dr King spoke in Raleigh, North Carolina, to an integrated audience of about 5,000 at Reynolds Coliseum at 4 pm on 31 July 1966. A counter-protest began two hours earlier with speeches at Memorial Auditorium and continued with a march by members from two factions of the Ku Klux Klan.
FBI files reveal these white supremacists had to reschedule their rally when King’s visit was postponed from 10 July due to his involvement in protesting housing conditions in Chicago’s Gage Park. Before MLK and the KKK met in Raleigh, King had moved his whole family into ghetto conditions in Chicago, fully committed to bringing change.
King was on the lips of many pastors that weekend. Rev H W Carey placed an advertisement in “The News & Observer” in Raleigh, North Carolina, inviting those to come to Neuse Baptist Church to hear if Dr King was “Christian or Anti-Christian — Christ or Anti-Christ (“Anti-Christ” the protestant description of the Pope and at the same time a code for the Roman Catholic Church).” His answer was clear as the day before King’s speech, Friendship Baptist Church, Mid-Way Baptist Church, Grace Baptist Church and Neuse Baptist Church took out an advertisement in “The News & Observer” stating that they opposed “Integration” and “King” as “RIOT, BLOODSHED, DISORDER, AND CONFUSION follow him” and because “The Communist cause is promoted.”
King travelled to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of striking African American city sanitation workers. At the time, Memphis paid black workers significantly lower wages than white workers. There were no city-issued uniforms, no restrooms, no recognized union, and no grievance procedure for the numerous occasions on which they were underpaid. During Henry Loeb's tenure as Mayor, conditions did not significantly improve, and the gruesome February 1968 deaths of two workers in a garbage-compacting truck turned mounting tensions into a strike.
King participated in a massive march in Memphis on 28 March1968 that ended in violence. On 3 April King returned to Memphis to attempt a successful new march later that week. His airline flight to Memphis was delayed by a bomb threat but he arrived in time to make a planned speech to a gathering at the Mason Temple (World Headquarters of the Church of God in Christ).
There, King delivered the speech, now known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address. In it, he recalled his 1958 attempted assassination, noting that the doctor who treated him said that because the knife used to stab him was so near to his aorta, any sudden movement, even a sneeze, might have killed him. He referred to a letter, written by a young girl, who told him she was happy he had not sneezed. He used that reference to say, “I, too, am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in interstate travel.”
He repeated the phrase, “If I had sneezed”, several more times, recalling numerous other events and acts of civil disobedience of the previous several years: the Albany Movement (1962), the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, and the Selma to Montgomery March (1965).
As he came to the end of his speech, he referred to the bomb threat: “And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats... or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don't know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And 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! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, Room 306 (II)
The set was, as good as it could be, a true copy of Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis-even the folding door to the toilet!
If you ever were looking for sweat and tears in a play then last night you were rewarded with sweat and tears and lots of it. In a gripping, fast moving and sometimes funny play you were invited to watch Martin Luther King’s final night in Memphis before his assassination. Katori Hall, the Olivier Award-Winning Playwright, weaves a powerful, poignantly funny, surreal fantasy about a conversation between King and a mysterious hotel maid who brings a cup of coffee to his hotel room late at night. Their meeting prompts him to confront his life, his past, his legacy and the plight and future of civil rights and African Americans.
There were a number of revelations, for instance that Camae the chambermaid was actually called Carrie Mae, clearly emblazoned on her uniform blouse, that, theologically pretty questionable, God was a “she” and that Camae seemed to have an endless supply of cigarettes. But latest when she called Martin Luther King “Michael”, his real Christian name, it dawned on him and the audience that something wasn’t right.
Meeting the two magnificent actors, David Wurawa as Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Kudra Owens as the chambermaid Camae, but also Assistant Director András Ho, Stage Manager Laura D Mitchell together with the Director, the ever effervescent Joanna Godwin-Seidl (I really lost count how often I have already called her that), was a privilege. They patiently answered the many questions put to them by our interested members.
Carry On the Baton!
Since our Vice - President Dr Alexander Christiani sadly and unexpectedly could not be present last night, Joanna Godwin-Seidl bravely picked up the dropped baton and not only moderated very ably the Question and Answer Session but also took us, so to speak, behind the scenes.
This is already my eighth report from the Theater Drachengasse! What shall I say to all those who have turned down last night’s invitation? You missed a superb performance and great theatre on top of the excellent hospitality, a large variety of tasty canapés and plenty of Hochriegl sekt, all courtesy Café Ministerium!