At Canaan’s Edge concludes “America in the King Years,” a three-volume history by Pulitizer Prize winner Taylor Branch that provides an account of the civil rights movement in the U.S. Studded with detail that brings the charismatic icons of that era to life, Branch provides a poignant account of King’s last day.
After a day of meetings, phone calls, and a get together with his brother, King and his close friend Ralph Abernathy made plans for the evening. Branch writes:
[King] reminded Abernathy that Bill Kyles expected them at five o’clock for an early supper before the mass meeting. They certainly would arrive late, with extra guests such as Eskridge and the Kentucky group, but King claimed to worry most about the menu. He wanted to make sure they would get real soul food rather than some dainty starvation of asparagus and greens. ‘Call her,’ he prodded Abernathy with an insistent undercurrent of mirth, until the exasperated sidekick called Gwen Kyles. She said there was plenty of food and the dinner was at six o’clock, not five. (By disclosing the actual time, she inadvertently spoiled her husband’s trick to combat King’s chronic tardiness.) As for the puzzling question about the menu, she mentioned a few dishes hesitantly until excitement spread through her household that Abernathy was repeating each item to King – roast beef, sweetbreads, chitterlings, pork chops, neck bones, fried chicken, and ham in the meat line, plus six kinds of salad, featured turnip greens and candied sweet potatoes, a bread table of hot rolls, corn bread, corn muffins, biscuits, and corn pones, and pretty much the works for dessert. Kyles had recruited the best cooks from her church, along with many helpers, favored daughters, and hostesses in finest clothes to spread forth a feast. (‘They were really laying for that dinner,’ she recalled.) Her menu, greatly embellished in Abernathy’s relayed account, more than satisfied King….”
Close to 6 p.m., Rev. Billy Kyles went up to King’s room to hurry him along. King teased Kyles about his new house and said “Now Billy, if you’ve bought this big new house and can’t afford to feed us, I’m gonna tell everybody in the country.” They joked a little more, and King went out on the balcony, to see who had arrived from the rest of their group. He bantered over the handrail with some of the men. Jesse Jackson called up to King to ask if he remembered Ben Branch, a saxophonist and song leader. “Oh yes, he’s my man,” said King. “How are you, Ben?” Branch waved. King recalled his signature number from Chicago and called down, “Ben, make sure you play ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand,’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” Branch called back, “Okay, Doc, I will.’” Taylor Branch writes what happened next:
Solomon Jones, the volunteer chauffeur, called up to bring coats for a chilly night. There was no reply. Time on the balcony had turned lethal, which left hanging the last words fixed on a gospel song of refuge. King stood still for once, and his sojourn on earth went blank.”
King was only 39 years old.