"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. …like anybody, i would like to live a long life. but I’m not concerned about that now. …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."
king delivered these words at mason temple in memphis, tennessee the very night before his assassination on april 4th, 1968. he was in memphis to support 1300 striking sanitation workers, largely african american, who were protesting difficult working conditions, poverty level wages and the refusal of the city to recognize their union.
although jim crow was now technically abolished, it was still very difficult for african americans to find work in the south, and for many in memphis collecting garbage was the only job they could get. but work was hard and unsafe. workers would come home with clothes saturated with filthy water and crawling with maggots. and when it rained, workers could only seek refuge in the back of their compressor trucks.
this would lead to the death of echol cole and robert walker, who were accidentally crushed during a storm. their deaths would precipitate the strike. as one striker, taylor rogers, later recalled, “if you bend your back, people will ride your back. but if you stand up straight, people can’t ride your back. so that’s what we did. we stood up straight and said, ‘I AM A MAN’.”
and so king, despite the wishes of some confidants, went to memphis in the midst of his poor people’s campaign to stand with the sanitation workers. as he said the night before his death, “we’ve got to march and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of god’s children here suffering.”
because, as king famously said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” be it political or racial or economic injustice. the promised land was not only a voting rights act or a civil rights act. it was also the right to organize (including public sector employees), a living wage, and basic decency.
and as king said, “if you haven’t found something in life that you’re willing to die for, you’ve not yet lived.” though he didn’t live to see it, the strike eventually ended with union recognition from the city and raises for the workers, but not before king’s now widowed wife, coretta scott king, defied the threats to her own life and marched in her late husband’s place on april 8.
photos by (click pic) jack thornell, richard l. copley, charlie kelly and sam melhorn.