By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
Well, 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. And 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.
Excerpt from the speech: “I’ve been to the mountaintop” and the last words spoken publicly by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on April 3, 1968.
On Wednesday, April 3, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., gave his last speech. He spoke at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King was in Memphis to support a group of African-American sanitation workers who had been forced to go on strike. The strike was sparked by an incident on February 1, 1968 when Echol Cole and Robert Walker, both African-American sanitation workers in Memphis, were crushed to death as they worked inside a sanitation truck.
White American author Taylor Branch in his 2007 book, “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68”, described the death of Cole and Walker: “It was a gruesome chore to retrieve the two crushed bodies from the garbage packer and pronounce them dead at John Gaston Hospital. Echol Cole and Robert Walker soon became the anonymous cause that diverted Martin Luther King to Memphis for his last march.”
The deaths of Cole and Walker were just another insult that the Memphis Department of Public Works had dealt to African-American sanitation workers. Within the same week the Department sent a group of African-American workers (who had turned up for work) home during a rain storm refusing to pay them while White workers who did no work on that day received their salaries. The African-American workers met on Sunday night, February 11, and went on strike Monday, February 12, 1968.
The callous disregard displayed by the authorities in Memphis for the lives of the two dead African-American sanitation workers coupled with the latest blatant disrespect and disregard for the labour and lives of African-Americans in their employ drove the estimated 1,300 African-American employees of the city to go on strike. The incident resulting in the death of Cole and Walker was the most egregious in a long line of abuse and neglect of African-American workers by the Memphis Department of Public Works.
The sanitation workers, led by African-American sanitation worker T. O. Jones, embarked on a strike that would bring Dr. King to Memphis.
T.O. Jones was the leader of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers (AFSCME) and took a risk in calling the workers out on strike without support from his national office which was led by White men. The Mayor of the city of Memphis, Henry Loeb III, refused to negotiate with the striking workers and instead threatened to permanently replace them.
In an effort to demoralize the striking workers city police escorted garbage trucks with replacement strikebreaking workers in an effort to break the strike. While the workers were on strike city police attacked the workers and their supporters with clubs and mace (pepper spray).
The strike would eventually become more than a group of African-American sanitation workers fighting for dignity and better pay on their job. By the time it ended on April 16, 1968 it would have become a rallying point for African-Americans fighting for dignity and respect in Memphis, Tennessee.
The African-American sanitation workers in Memphis with the support of the African-American community in the city had been on strike for five weeks when Dr. King was invited to support them. Dr. King flew to Memphis and on Monday, March 18, he spoke at a rally attended by about 17,000 people where he advocated that a citywide march be held in support of the striking workers. Dr. King returned to Memphis on Thursday, March 28, to lead the protest march. The Memphis police department came out in a show of force and attacked the marchers with guns, batons, mace and tear gas. Surprisingly, only one person was killed by police gunfire. Unarmed 16-year-old African-American Larry Payne was shot to death by police who also injured 60 people and arrested 280. The state legislature authorized a 7:00 p.m. curfew and 4,000 National Guardsmen moved through the city to curb the movements of African-Americans.
Dr. King returned to Memphis on Wednesday, April 3 to address another rally planned to support the striking workers. That night (April 3, 1968) during his last speech at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Tennessee Dr. King gave his final speech. During that speech he compared the lives of African-Americans to those struggling to unionize.
“Memphis Negroes are almost entirely a working people. Our needs are identical with labour’s needs — decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labour’s demands and fight laws which curb labour. That is why the labour-hater and labour-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labour propaganda from the other mouth.”
The following day as Dr. King stood on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee he was shot and killed by a sniper. His assassin has never been verified. Although White supremacist James Earl Ray was tried and found guilty of the assassination there have always been doubts about who really assassinated Dr. King. Ironically, the strike which was his last civil rights action, ended 12 days after he was killed. On April 16, 1968 the sanitation workers reached an agreement with the city and the strike ended.
It has been 46 years since Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee and since he spoke these famous words: “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.”
We have still not entered that “Promised Land” of which Dr. King dreamed where his four little children would live in a world “where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
With the murders of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis not much has changed since Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. In this 21st century we must keep fighting the fight Dr. King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dudley Laws, Charles Roach, Sherona Hall and countless others fought. The Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) which was co-founded by some of the ancestors I mention here is carrying on that fight with a class action lawsuit to address racial profiling. We need to support this action!!