Friday, April 4, 2008

Economy, Labor & Society Memo: Why Dr. King Was in Memphis 40 Years Ago Today

Put on my blue suede shoes
And I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the delta blues
In the middle of the puring rain
W.C. Handy--won't you look down over me
Yeah I got a first class ticket
But I'm as blue as a boy can be
Then I'm walking in Memphis
Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel.
--From the song: Walking in Memphis; by Marc Cohn

"They felt a garbage man wasn't nothing. And they figured they could treat us any way they wanted to treat us. ... Make you feel bad, 'cause you know you wasn't no garbage. You supposed to be a man."
--Elmore Nickelberry, a still-working 76 year old Sanitation worker in Memphis, Tennessee, who was on the picket line during the 1968 "I Am A Man" labor protest. Mr. Nickelberry is the man in the picture at the top of the story holding the sign in front of the Lorraine hotel.

'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 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. So I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything! I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"
--Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 3, 1968 at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ headquarters in Memphis, the evening before he was killed by a sniper's bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The quote is from what is called his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech.

Forty years ago today, civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed by a sniper's bullet as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, bantering and kibbitzing with his top aids in the parking lot below.

King had come to Memphis to make a quick speech about civil rights and economic justice, and planned to leave the Southern U.S. city that same day.

However, the climate in Memphis was tense. Black sanitation workers, fed-up with racial discrimination and abuse from their white bosses, were talking strike, something that not only was a foreign concept to African American laborers at the time, but frightening as well.

This was a difficult time in Dr. King's life. He was in the process of broadening his non-violent civil rights advocacy from race relations to include economic and labor fairness and justice issues. King also had recently made what for him was a personally agonizing decision to come out publicly against the U.S. war in Vietnam.

The reason it was an agonizing decision for Dr. King was because it meant going against President Lyndon Johnson in calling for an end to the war. Vietnam was LJB's war, and the anti-war climate and demonstrations in 1968 were tormenting the "guns and butter" President.

Johnson, the first U.S. President to push for and sign a real, comprehensive equal and civil rights bill outlawing discrimination for blacks and others, also knew that if Dr. King came out against the war publicly, it was likely the end for his Presidency.

King worked closely with LBJ to pass the landmark civil rights legislation, and felt he owed him much for keeping his word to the civil rights leader that as President he would make it happen.

Against the backdrop of the sanitation workers strike in Memphis, which had started by the time Dr. King arrived, others had moved into Memphis to march and protest in support of the workers--and for equal rights in general. Things were turning violent and the anti-violent King was worried.

Dr. King announced his support for the sanitation workers the day he arrived in Memphis, as well as announcing it was time for not just racial justice, but for economic justice in America as well. This was what came to be called the Poor Peoples' Campaign.

In the midst of all this activity, Dr. King extended his stay in Memphis. On the night of April 3, 1968, he gave the speech quoted above. It seemed as if that night he already knew what was to happen the following day. That very next day, Martin Luther King Jr., just one-year shy of his 40th birthday, was shot and killed by a sniper as he relaxed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, playfully bantering with his aids below in the parking lot.

Most people alive today probably have no idea what Dr. King was doing in Memphis on that rainy day 40 years ago when he was shot and killed in the prime of his life by a sniper named James Earl Ray.

This is just a sample of what Dr. King, who was 39 when he was shot and killed, achieved in his short adulthood: A bachelor's degree in sociology from Morehouse college in Atlanta, Georgia at age 19; A second bachelor's degree, in theology, from Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania two years later; and a Ph. D in philosophy from Boston University in 1955.

Dr. King was the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama; an award-winning author (books: Stride Toward Freedom, Letters from a Birmingham Jail, Why We Can't Wait); Time Magazine's Man of the Year in 1964 (the first African American to receive the honor), the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1964); an advisor to President's Kennedy and Johnson; husband and father of four; and of course, the leading civil and economic rights leader America has ever produced.

Most unfortunately, as historian Michael K. Honey, author of the book "Going Down Jerico Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign," says in an essay written by (McClatchy-owned) Miami Herald newspaper columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. and published in numerous McClatchy Co. newspapers in the United States this morning, on April 4, 1968 America lost "the one man who was able to speak to rabbis and working men and preachers and militants alike, to communicate across almost all the barriers and boundaries of the 1960's."

Read Leonard Pitts' full essay here. You also can view archival videos and photographs of Dr. King and the Memphis Sanitation workers strike here.

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