If you could zoom in and get a closer look at the master narrative of the civil rights movement, you would see the details that truly made the movement what it was and is today. In standard history courses, it is often overlooked as to why exactly Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis when he was assassinated. He came to assist in the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ strike which began in February of 1968. The sanitation workers of Memphis had spent years working for terrible pay in even worse conditions. They used equipment that was old and unsafe, and even led to the death of two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker. Workers were not only paid less than the white employees for the same amount of work, but also were refused pay raises because of their race. On February 11th, around 1300 black sanitation workers went on strike in order for things to change. The strike began as a call for change in this specific work environment but turned into a civil rights struggle.
King first went to Memphis in March to support the sanitation workers. He returned April 3rd to address a gathering of workers at the Mason Temple. It was here that he gave his famous “Mountaintop” speech. This speech, full of powerful messages and inspirational words, also gave way to an eerie foreshadow of King’s fate:
“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it 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!”
The next morning, April 4th, the infamous shot rang out and King was killed. That dark moment in America’s history is a dark cloud that Memphis has struggled to get from under. Even today, you can still feel the unsettled tensions and even the hurt and anger from that day. Over the summer I had the chance to hear Reverend Billy Kyles tell his story of being on the balcony when King was shot. As he spoke, I hung to his every word. While listening, I tried to wrap my head around the fact that it was here, five minutes from where I live that this leader was killed. It was a strangely profound moment for me, but when he was finished talking I had already realized that there was a positive thing that came from this. Yes, King’s death is a dark cloud over Memphis, but at the same time, it can be looked at in a positive light that he came here to do good for the workers who so desperately needed help and change. Soon after in April, the strike was settled with pay raises and union recognition. Even after his death, King had been a part of victory against struggle.