Between 1954 and 1968, the Civil Rights Movement was a significant era for African Americans in the United States and was a major catalyst for the changes that led to African Americans experiencing the freedoms we enjoy today. The person most widely credited as being the leader of this impactful movement was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose extraordinary life was taken from us 50 years ago this week at the ripe age of 39.
This commemoration is being referred to as MLK50.
And while many people will focus this week on the 50 years since that bullet struck Dr. King in the jaw and severed his spinal cord while he was on his way to dinner, the Forward Times has decided to focus on the impact that Dr. King had prior to his assassination, as well as the impact he continues to have since his untimely death.
In the months before his assassination, Dr. King became increasingly concerned with the problem of economic inequality in America. He organized a Poor People’s Campaign to focus on the issue, including an interracial poor people’s march on Washington.
However, it was his visit to Memphis, Tennessee in March 1968 that is a defining moment in his legacy.
After hearing about Black sanitary public works employees in Memphis being on strike since March 12, 1968, Dr. King traveled to Memphis on March 28, 1968, to take up the fight and stand in solidarity with the Black employees who were requesting higher wages and better treatment.
Black employees were represented by the local labor union, but incidents were being reported, such as Black street repairmen receiving wages for two hours of work after being sent home as a result of bad weather, but their fellow White employees receiving a full day’s wages for the same situation. Other incidents were also reported, such as Black employees being paid significantly lower wages than White employees, Blacks being forced to work during major thunderstorms and snowstorms, and several Black employees being killed on the job due to unsafe working conditions.
On March 28, Dr. King led a protest march on behalf of those sanitation workers, which sadly ended in violence as a young Black teenager was killed.
Although Dr. King left Memphis after the protest march, the city and those Black sanitation workers stayed on his heart and mind. He vowed to return to Memphis the following month to lead another protest march for change. Dr. King stood in the gap with those Black sanitation workers, and made it a major point of emphasis outside of Memphis.
The day before his assassination, Dr. King was back in Memphis doing what he loved doing – advocating for those who were being disenfranchised and ignored. He made that a point of emphasis in his last speech as well.
When Dr. King returned to Memphis on April 3, 1968, he delivered his often-recited “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple, the World Headquarters of the Church of God in Christ. It was there that he addressed the plight of the sanitation workers in Memphis, saying:
Secondly, let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers were on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that.
Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be. And force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue. And we’ve got to say to the nation: we know it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.
Then to close out his speech, Dr. King spoke about his plane delay as a result of a bomb threat as he was headed to Memphis, in what many people believe was a prophetic utterance of things he knew would happen to him, saying:
“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 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.”
One day after speaking those words, Dr. King was shot and killed by a sniper. As word of the assassination spread, riots broke out in cities all across the United States and National Guard troops were deployed in Memphis and Washington, D.C. On April 9, King was laid to rest in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets to pay tribute to King’s casket as it passed by in a wooden farm cart drawn by two mules.
There have been many movements in this country since its inception, but the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. King has to be considered one of the most monumental ones to date.
Through the efforts of Dr. King, several landmark pieces of legislation took place during this era Civil Rights Movement, such as the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination of people based on “race, color, religion, or national origin” in employment practices and public accommodations; the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which restored and protected the voting rights of all people; and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which banned the discrimination of the sale or renting of housing.
The various forms of protests used by Dr. King, such as boycotts, marches and “sit-ins,” became significant nonviolent activities that helped to bring forth change in America. In addition to the forms of protests, African Americans got more engaged in politics in the South.
All across the country young people were inspired to action, because Dr. King represented the true meaning of making a sacrifice for justice.
After all the beatings he endured; after all the marches and protests he led; after all of the time he spent in jail; and after all the demands for justice and equality he advocated for, there is no way that anyone can invoke the spirit of Dr. King into any meaningful dialogue without mentioning the willingness he had to sacrifice everything for justice.
Dr. King was an effective man that was focused on committed actions and results. The boldness and effective leadership skills are what made him dangerous in the eyes of many people – especially FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the federal government.
So, as the nation remembers that fateful evening at 6:01 p.m. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, it is important for everyone to also remember that Dr. King represented more than the often-used quotes or memorable sound bytes that have become commonplace in America.
Dr. King demanded that America give Black people the opportunity to thrive in this country, by providing Black people with the ability to pursue economic vibrancy, wealth generation, voting rights, social justice and freedom from police brutality and racial injustice.
It is fitting that during this week of commemorating the 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, that the country remembers Dr. King as a man who was not afraid to speak truth to power; who was not afraid to sacrifice his freedom; and who was not afraid to lay down his life for the sake of demanding “justice for all” in America.