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As the march swung right into main street for the last 10 blocks to City Hall, a surge pushed the front ranks into an uncomfortable speed, nearly a trot, jostled and patted from behind. Abernathy sensed an overly familiar, hostile edge in the cries of tribute--"We're glad you came to Memphis"--not long before loud pops turned anxious heads to listen for gunshots. Crashes after the bangs signaled instead the unmistakable sound of storefront windows being smashed along Beale and Main streets. Moans went up that something was wrong. Young marauders ran through overmatched marshals to attack storefronts ahead of the march--Shainberg's department store, York Arms Company, Perel and Lowenstein's--sometimes needing multiple blows to break the heavy plate glass. A helicopter bulletin at 11:24 a.m. reported 15 young people destroying a parked car a few hundred yards to the side, and marshals relayed shouted commands to halt the line of march.
Sensing the growing emergency, assistant police chief Henry Lux, marching within 20 feet of King, lent his bullhorn to James Lawson. "This is Reverend Lawson speaking!" shouted the voice above the chaos. "I want everybody who's in the march, in the movement, to turn around and go back to the church." Lawson joined a heated debate in the middle of Main Street, surrounded by pleas for calm as well as battle cries of "Black Power!" and "Burn it down, baby!" King was torn between his pledge to shun violence and his promise never to abandon the movement faithful. Most others yelled to evacuate him since he presented a target of opportunity, and King aide Bernard Lee pulled King and Abernathy among swirling followers down McCall Avenue toward the Mississippi River. Lee bulled and dodged interference until he flagged down two astonished women in a Pontiac, then a police motorcycle. Lieut. M.E. Nichols, appraising the danger by radio, avoided roadblocks already sealing off routes to the Lorraine Motel (the black-owned motel where the King entourage was staying) and escorted the Pontiac under siren to the uptown Rivermont Holiday Inn.
The FBI, which had kept King under close surveillance, wiretapped him and even inserted an undercover agent into the SCLC hierarchy, moved quickly to exploit the Memphis debacle.