Last Thursday, April 4, was the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The day before, I was privileged to attend a legal conference in Savannah, Georgia where a panel paid tribute to the memory of Dr. King. The panel included Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, the last surviving individual who was present on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Dr. King was shot. The panel also included the executive director of the National Civil Rights Museum, which is housed in the Lorraine Motel, and Dr. King’s attorney.
Many of us recall that the night before he was shot, Dr. King gave his speech in which he appears to have prophesized his own death the next day, declaring:
I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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!
But what few of us remember is why Dr. King was in Memphis in the first place.
Dr. King traveled to Memphis in March and April 1968 to assist 1300 mostly poor black workers whom we then called garbage men, now euphemistically known as sanitation workers, in a strike for better pay and working conditions. At the time Dr. King arrived in Memphis, the black workers were earning $1.75 per hour and because of a budget crunch were being sent home early to insure that their white counterparts got a full 40 hours of work. The month before Dr. King arrived, two black workers had been crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. After a march in support of the strikers on March 28 had turned violent to the great dismay of Dr. King, Dr. King returned to lead what he promised would be a non-violent march.
Dr. King had not planned to speak on April 3 but rather to work on organizing the Poor People’s Campaign for later that spring, a gathering in Washington to demand better jobs, health care, and housing. However, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, overwhelmed by the size of the crowd that had gathered at the Masonic Temple, telephoned Dr. King and urged him to come over, saying that the people were there to hear Dr. King, not him. Moved by the size of the crowd, Dr. King gave his now famous mountaintop speech.
Hearing the speech again on April 3, 2013, I wondered what Dr. King would think if he were to take a look from the mountaintop today. Undoubtedly he would be gratified to learn that we have a black president, and that the overall lot for many African-Americans in our society has improved greatly. But I think he would despair to see the growing economic disparity between rich and poor in our country, in no small measure caused by the declining number of unionized workers. And I think he would wonder why the richest nation on earth still cannot provide adequate health care to all its citizens. And why African-American men are imprisoned at such disparate rates.
Dr. King did not just fight for racial equality; he fought for economic equality. He understood that a society composed of haves and have nots, of rich and poor, regardless of the color of the skin, was unjust and ultimately threatened the well-being of all Americans. Our struggle on the 45th anniversary of Dr. King’s death is not just to honor Dr. King’s memory, but to continue to fight for his dream of true equality and social justice.
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