This week, on April 4, we will mark the 47th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 39 at the time of his death.
Dr. King was in Memphis to lend support to striking African-American sanitation workers, who were protesting unequal wages and conditions and seeking to form a union. From Memphis, he was headed to Washington, D.C. where he was making arrangements for a Poor People’s Campaign, a march on Washington of impoverished workers of every race, religion and region.
Dr. King’s concerns at that time are with us still. Today, like the sanitation workers, unions of public employees — from teachers to sanitation workers — are under siege by conservative governors. And as unions decline, inequality rises, and wages stagnate. Today, profits capture record proportions of the national income, and wages hover near record lows.
Dr. King was a troubled man in 1968. The Civil Rights Movement was divided; his leadership was under assault. He was savagely criticized for opposing the Vietnam War. Nonviolence was increasingly criticized as ineffective, despite the victories in ending segregation and gaining the right to vote. Despairing, he sometimes talked about leaving the movement, becoming the head of a university, retiring to read and write.
But he stayed in the struggle. He knew the stakes were too high to stop. Dr. King was clear. The war on poverty was being lost in the jungles of Vietnam. Our priorities were destructive: Too much money and attention went to war and weapons of war, too little to addressing poverty and providing a hand up.
Were he alive today, Dr. King surely would be organizing nonviolent civil disobedience, calling for protests. Once more, we are entangled in too many wars. Once more, a Congress slashes support for the vulnerable, while adding billions to war and weapons of war. Once more, working people lose hope, as too few have too much and too many have too little.
Dr. King organized the Poor People’s Campaign because he understood that the powerful will not rescue the oppressed. Freedom comes only when the oppressed act and demand justice. He had helped lead the first movements of the Freedom Symphony — the struggle against segregation, the battle for voting rights. But he knew that the third movement — the struggle for equal opportunity and economic rights — would be the most difficult of all.
In the last speech of his life, Dr. King referred to the threats on his life. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter with me know. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. … Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. 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.”
Now, nearly 50 years later, we have come a long way, but we have far to go. Inequality is worse than it was in 1968. More are unemployed, far more are in prison. Hunger, homelessness, joblessness plague our neighborhoods. We will get to the promised land, but only if people of conscience once more heed Dr. King’s teaching, and act to create their own history.