The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr with colleagues, leaders in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee just moments before King was struck and killed by the bullet of an assassin. (Courtesy photo)

On Thursday, April 4, 1968, just after 6 p.m., the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., age 39, was shot and killed while standing on a balcony with Southern Christian Leadership Conference colleagues outside of his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

King had arrived in the city one day earlier to lend his support to Memphis sanitation workers who were engaged in a strike that began in February. The strike had been precipitated by the death of two Black co-workers, crushed to death while on the job. On the day the two men were killed, 22 Blacks were sent home without pay while their white supervisors stayed on the job.

King agreed to support their cause and lead a march through Memphis in April. On April 3, he delivered a speech at the Mason Temple Church of God.

During the 43-minute speech, the last he would give in his life, he shared a message that has become both legendary and prophetic:

“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.”

News of King’s assassination prompted major outbreaks of racial violence, resulting in more than 40 deaths nationwide and extensive property damage in over 100 American cities. James Earl Ray, a 40-year-old escaped fugitive, later confessed to the crime, and was sentenced to a 99-year prison term.

During King’s funeral, a tape recording he had made earlier delivered King’s desire of how he wanted to be remembered after his death: “I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others” (King, “Drum Major Instinct,” 85). 

YouTube video

After his death, President Lyndon B. Johnson called for a national day of mourning to be observed on April 7. In the days that followed, public libraries, museums, schools, and businesses were closed, and the Academy Awards ceremony and numerous sporting events were postponed.

Morehouse College President Benjamin Mays delivered the eulogy, predicting that King “would probably say that, if death had to come, I am sure there was no greater cause to die for than fighting to get a just wage for garbage collectors.”

Now, on the 55th anniversary of his assassination, the world continues to mourn his death and to honor the legacy he left behind – one which requires the actions of a new regiment of foot soldiers committed to bringing Dr. King’s “dream” to fruition.  

King’s daughter, Bernice, continues her father’s work

Earlier this year, on the King Holiday, the Reverend Bernice King spoke with a reporter about her father’s work and life, as well as his death, which she said still weighs heavily on her mind.

“I’m wired to be task-oriented first and so I can’t spend the day (the King Holiday) going through the motions I have to go through,” she said. “But I’m not always in tune with what’s happening in my feelings from the time … it’s still hard. I mean, you got to realize, we really haven’t been able to ‘bury’ our parents. I work with the institutions in [which] they are entombed [in] side-by-side crypts and so [their presence is] right there on a day-to-day basis. They’re very much alive because people continue to refer to my dad constantly, in just about almost every issue in the universe.”

She no longer serves on the frontline of activism as she did in the past. Instead, she concentrates on working on “the message, the education and the advocacy,” adding that whenever there’s an issue that calls for her presence at the frontline, “you know you’re dealing with something for real.”

“The most important thing is having a philosophy and methodology to bring about social change … the way we’re going about it (today) is too combative, it’s too polarized,” said Bernice King. “It’s too ‘us’ and ‘them’ and it’s not enough of ‘we.’ It’s not enough of, how do we envision a win-win outcome. We got to shift our focus that way because otherwise we’re going to end up in an endless reign of chaos, that’s what he was saying. What are we going to get from here, chaos or community?”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks truth to power. (Courtesy photo)

AFSCME President Lee Sanders remembers King

In commemoration of the 55th anniversary of his death, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) recently launched an exclusive podcast series about the historic 1968 strike, “The Story I AM.” The comprehensive series examines the origins of the strike and events leading up to the death of Dr. King.   

“The deaths of Robert Walker and Echol Cole in the back of a garbage truck on that cold, rainy day in 1968 set off a strike in Memphis like no other,” said AFSCME President Lee Saunders. “Black sanitation workers took a courageous stand – a stand that drew the American labor movement and the civil rights movement together to change the course of our history.” 

The podcast provides a front-row seat to the events that shook the nation, featuring strikers who were there and some of today’s leading civil rights icons including Martin Luther King III and the Reverend James Lawson. Together, they guide listeners through history while also connecting the struggles of the past to the challenges facing working people today.

Sander said 55 years later, the fight continues for fair wages, safe working conditions, collective bargaining rights and more. He added that we are also fighting to ensure that our children are able to learn the real history, despite the actions of radical politicians who seek to ban books like “Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop” from school shelves.

“In order to move forward, we cannot forget what happened in Memphis,” Sanders said. “The sanitation strikers put their lives on the line for dignity and respect on the job – not just for themselves, but for everyone being mistreated and everyone whose rights were being denied. We will continue to educate our communities and organize around the strikers’ iconic slogan, ‘I AM A MAN,’ which still holds so much power after all these years.” 

We must continue to tell the story

In this reporter’s stead as the senior editor for The Miami Times about 10 years ago, this writer remembers a newly-hired journalist, a graduate of a Florida-based HBCU, coming into his office for an assignment. Our conversation would be an eye opener.

“Just days before April 4, I asked the young brother to give me a feature on the significance of that date in American history,” this writer said.

“The young, Black man, 24 years old, replied, ‘what’s so important about April 4th?’ His question was shocking. But more than that, it was disappointing to realize that after spending four years at an historic Black college and receiving his degree, this young graduate could not call to mind one of the most important dates in Black history. He could not imagine how different his life, and my life, may have been without the sacrifices made by the ancestors – ancestors that include men like Dr. King.”   


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *