Why Martin Luther King Went To Memphis 50 Years Ago — And Why It Still Matters Today

"Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness."

It's an understatement to say that the final speech that Martin Luther King Jr. gave before his death is one of his most revered. Most observers call out King's declaration that he had "been to the mountaintop" as its defining moment. But too often, people forget the reason King was giving the speech in the first place: to advocate for better quality of life for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. It's a message that still bears consideration today.


"The issue is injustice," King said. "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."

The day before King was assassinated, he spoke to show support for 1,300 sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., who had been on strike. Many of the sanitation workers in Memphis lived below the poverty line despite working full-time jobs and they had few health benefits, worked in sordid conditions. The city did not recognize their union. 

"The strike came to symbolize the strivings of the working poor and the general demand by the African American community for equality," historian Michael Honey wrote for the Tennesee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. "Arbitrary behavior by white supervisors, refusal by the city government to recognize the union or meet with workers to discuss their grievances, and the hostile reaction to the strike by the city's white residents all made the strike a racial as well as an economic issue."

On March 18, 1968, King had spoken to 15,000 people in Memphis, and 10 days later a demonstration he attended broke out in violence when protestors began smashing windows. Then, he was back on April 3, a day before being assassinated, to deliver what would become his final speech. 

60 years later, his words and his unity with the working poor are still relevant. 

All across the country in 2018, public servants, who happen to be teachers, are staging protests to demand better pay and benefits. More than 1,000 teachers in Oklahoma walked out and stormed the state capitol this week to call for better wages and benefits. Some, like Rae Lovelace, a third-grade teacher at Leedey Public Schools in northwest Oklahoma, told USA Today, "If I didn't have a second job, I'd be on food stamps."

When you hear those words, it's hard not to think of King's final speech.

"It's all right to talk about 'streets flowing with milk and honey,'" he said that night. "But God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day."

Oklahoma isn't alone, either. The state's teacher strike was inspired in large part by the more than 20,000 teachers who went on strike for nine days in West Virginia. West Virginia teachers were the third lowest paid in the country before the strike, which helped them secure a five percent pay increase and a task force to address rising health care costs. Teachers also went on strike in Kentucky, and now strikes are being planned in Arizona.

After King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, 50 years ago today, the sanitation worker strike intensified. President Lyndon Johnson and the Tennessee Governor pressured the city to recognize the union, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1733, and give them the pay increase and health benefits they asked for. As many as 40,000 demonstrators joined Coretta Scott King for a silent march through the city on April 8, and by April 16 the strike was over.

Many Americans may wonder what King might say about current political moments, but when it comes to unions and the treatment of public servants, we can look to his words from that final speech.

"Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness," he told the crowd in Memphis. "Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation."

Cover image via Shutterstock / Forty3Zero.

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